Monday, October 10, 2011

Take Shelter

The new film Take Shelter begins as a simple but intriguing character study of Curtis (Michael Shannon in an award-caliber performance), a blue-collar family man plagued by disturbing visions of a coming storm. It develops into an engrossing family drama and a commentary on how systemic socioeconomic problems can worsen the stigma of mental illness – all while the film builds a sense of measured dread and uncertainty as to what might happen. It’s as if David Lynch and Terrence Malick were equal influences on writer/director Jeff Nichols.

Curtis at first keeps his nightmares and hallucinations private, seemingly out of embarrassment, or perhaps because they could be explained away by similar weather near his home in rural Ohio. As they persist and worsen, the film steadily develops how they affect Curtis in his relationships with those close to him, including his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), and his coworker and friend Dewart (Shea Whigham).

Curtis gets a doghouse and a wire enclosure for the (inside) family dog because he dreamt of it attacking him, and he doesn't want his daughter to get hurt. Fair enough, though he doesn’t offer any explanation to his wife. As Curtis starts to become more disturbed, and more emphatic in his need to take preventative measures – cleaning out and improving upon the house’s storm shelter – he needs to give some indication to those around him, but he's still hesitant. This is when Curtis begins to seek help (again, privately), and the film reveals that it might not only be embarrassment or misplaced concern that has prevented him from explaining himself: it might be fear and shame.

Without further discussion of plot, so as not to spoil anything, it’s difficult to get across how effective and tense the film is, or with Curtis's attempt to keep his visions to himself, how the supporting characters are not marginalized: all of the performances are nuanced and realized. Chastain (who is in a number of high-profile films this year thanks to the nature of distribution and scheduling) is particularly brilliant as Samantha; the “wife and mother” role is a traditionally thankless one, with little character agency, but she’s crucial as a support and counterbalance to Curtis and in keeping the film realistically and emotionally grounded.

The set-up might have gone off the rails under less assured hands, or with the involvement that comes with a bigger studio production – Shannon starred in Nichols’s 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories, and it’s clear that there was a singular vision here; the film is from Sony Pictures Classic, a smaller, more “independent” or art-house type studio and distributor. There are no shock tactics or extraneous story points in Take Shelter, every shot and edit feels purposeful (which should always be the case in movies but sadly rarely is) – there are a couple of quick moments that might seem incidental or scenic, but are subtly paid off later in the story. Beyond the merits given above, the film is fair to its characters and its premise, and is an engaging blend of realism and abstraction without being heady. It is sure to be among my top five of 2011.

[Published link: here]

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