Friday, March 16, 2012
Is Anyone Seeing This?
Written and Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Tova Stewart, Katy Mixon, Natasha Randall, Ron Kennard, Scott Kinsley, Robert Longstreet.
Running time: 120 min.
With the 21st of December fast approaching, people are either anticipating an apocalypse or laughing at the people who are scared that it will actually happen. But still, people have good intentions when they plan these so-called apocalypses: just take a look at all the stuff that has happened on the Earth in this past couple of years, the earthquakes, tsunamis, all of the other major disasters. They put these pieces together and suspect the worst is going to happen, sending themselves into fits of paranoia. That is exactly what happens to Curtis (Michael Shannon) in Take Shelter. He has dreams that turn him against the people and things around him - like his dog biting his arm, which results in the dog being left outside - and they culminate in a fear of an impending apocalypse. As the dreams get worse and worse, he finds himself comforted by a building project. This isn't the kind of building project that does any good right now, much to the dismay of his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). It is the kind where he takes out a risky home improvement loan to do up his storm shelter and create a haven in which he and his family can survive in if his visions do indeed come true.
It doesn't matter which side of the fence you are on: whether you believe in an apocalypse or not, it is as equally hard to side with Curtis as it is to turn a blind eye. The vivid, terrifying dreams he has make his plight something we could believe in. But then there are the people around him who think that he is taking his fear a step too far. He steals equipment for it, he sleeps out in the storm shelter, he even spends the valuable money needed to treat his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He seems to be bringing a storm to his small town, unleashing all sorts of bad things upon the people around him. But just as those people are quick to judge his actions as those of a crazy man, we know about what is going on in his head. We know about the confusion he feels towards everything that is happening to him, about the fact that his mother had schizophrenia at around the same age. You feel sorry for him, just as much as you ponder his sanity. This is what makes Take Shelter a perfect portrayal of the human mind at it's most vulnerable and intense. And that is exactly what makes this such a terrifying picture.
I've always been a fan of slow-burning thrillers, finding the intoxicating feeling you get from them far more effective than the cut-and-run nature of basic Hollywood thrillers. Take Shelter is indeed a slow-burner - a little too slow in some areas. Despite the pacing issues, writer/director Jeff Nichols gives you plenty to chew on about both the state of Curtis' mind and the possibility of his apocalyptic visions coming true. He creates a true atmosphere, filled with uncertainty and ultimately isolation. As you would expect, there are quite a few ambiguous, frightening shots, particularly during the dream sequences. The film begins with Curtis standing outside with oily rain falling upon him. Nichols takes one thing and flips it on it's side like this, and doesn't dress it up with jumpy editing or over-exposure. He gives you one shot for you to observe and absorb, and it manifests itself into a terrifying vision with a hundred different meanings. That is the work of a true artist. Add on a sometimes violent, sharp, ambient score and you have the makings of something that requires a little thought to be truly scary, but once you get there, you can't help but being on edge.
What Take Shelter deserves to be the most proud of, though, are the performances from both Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. They play off each other perfectly, first creating the idyllic family life with their deaf young daughter, then weaving their way through their married life. As that is set in stone, along comes the problems that Curtis faces, adding another layer to their dynamic. Shannon, an Oscar nominee for his scene-stealing performance in Revolutionary Road, gives another stellar performance here. I may sound like I'm adding to redundant cliché, but he really was screwed out of an Oscar nomination. He carries his character with sympathy and doesn't make himself out to be a monster, which is the vital key to the scene where he refuses to open the door to get out of the storm shelter. You believe that his visions have taken over his brain from just a simple look, which is a remarkable achievement from an actor. Chastain is also extraordinary in her role (but isn't that what we've come to expect?). While Shannon has the task of performing the meltdown, Chastain has to react to it. She does this with a quiet complexity, playing the terrified to Shannon's terrifying actions. They're both perfect - and hey, they should make more films together.
The film's climax, though, is the best thing about it. The sheer ambiguity of it makes it something that manifests in your brain long after the credits have rolled. From the first instance of trouble, to the revealing shot, to the final thing that Samantha says...it is so beautiful composed that it left my head reeling. It was the perfect way to close off a film that made me want to sit down and write a film myself. But I should wait until I can shake the full effect of this film off before I try and write something that makes sense.
What I got: