Monday, October 31, 2011

Man on Film: Take Shelter

Having previously worked together on the 2007 film Shotgun Stories, writer/director Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon jump back into the fray with the timely drama Take Shelter. Set against the backdrop of small town Ohio, Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a blue-collar but middle class family man. Curtis begins having apocalyptic nightmares that cause him to grow concerned that he is experiencing the early stages of schizophrenia at roughly the same age that his mother had when he was a child.
Tapping into the socio-political zeitgeist by pinning the intrafamilial conflict against a tapestry of health insurance woes, middle-class economic strife, and ultimately job-loss, Nichols spins a yarn with today's Everyman as the protagonist. The problems of the LaForche family are the same problems afflicting the disappearing middle class that the mainstream media likes to talk about on slow news days but doesn't actually seem to care about helping in a meaningful way. They are Middle America.

It is from this starting point that Nichols is able to strike a chord with the audience. As Curtis's apocalyptic visions shake him to his core, he questions his well-being. His mother's history of schizophrenia is looking like it could be his future. With his dreams taking a hold of him, he begins to fixate on the storm shelter in the backyard, seeing its improvement as the best way for him to protect his family against the specter of what his dreams portend.

Where this film excels is in its ability to stand right at the precipice. It teeters between terra firma and chaos with pressure building toward climax. This pressure brews under the surface of the narrative with the heavens looming dangerously over every scene.

But it is really in the nightmare sequences that Nichols & Co. blow the goddamn doors off the joint. The violence. The pounding oily rain. The opaque windows. The helplessness. Together these elements conjure up a an unforgettably unsettling feeling, both for the audience and Curtis. There is an almost biblical aspect to the downpours; those oily downpours leave any view of the outside world obscured, amping up the fear and isolation.

There may not be another actor who can pull off this role, but Michael Shannon does so with ease. As if anyone who has seen his work on Boardwalk Empire needed any proof, Michael Shannon is the real fucking deal. The Best Actor buzz for this turn is absolutely justified. His complement, Samantha, is also played pitch-perfect by Jessica Chastain. While the role is fairly similar to her role in The Tree of Life, she is still well-suited for the role. There is a down-home humanity that she radiates seemingly effortlessly. She grounds Shannon's performance, sets the even keel to contrast with his descent into what is potentially madness.

Take Shelter positions itself at the very edge of reason, staring off into the abyss while never letting you know what is down there. It does so with quiet confidence, opting for artful understatement instead of overt brushstrokes. In other words, Take Shelter is fucking great.

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