Monday, November 28, 2011

Take Shelter

TAKE SHELTER: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wingham (120 min.)

Take Shelter is a film based on modern American fear, where your job and your livelihood and your family might be taken away by catastrophe, the catastrophe in this case being of the natural disaster variety. Films and filmmakers sometimes tap into the national consciousness and exploit fears to expose a certain public mindset; consider the alien invasion films of the fifties as a substitute for Communism, or the surge of apocalyptic films in this post 9/11 era. This is not a new trend. Take Shelter examines the current malaise in this country, all over the world for that matter, in a chilling metaphorical look at a man who feels his sanity slipping.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a family man with a steady construction job, a co-worker who is his best friend (Shea Wingham), and pretty much everything he would need to be happy for the rest of his life. His wife, Samantha, is played by Jessica Chastain (who is having a stellar year with The Tree of Life and The Help already to her credit this year) and is a loving companion with a side job selling homemade drapes and pillows at the local farmer’s market. Curtis and Samantha have a young daughter, Hannah, who is hearing impaired but showered with love and affection by mother and father every day. Here is an idyllic portrait of Middle America. But something is wrong with Curtis.

He has been having nightmares, horribly vivid nightmares. He imagines rain as an oily substance falling out of massive thunderclouds. People attack his car and steal his daughter. The nightmares begin to seep into his daily life; in a nightmare the family dog attacks him and bites his arm and it takes the rest of the day for the pain in his arm to dissipate. He hears lightning on cloudless days. And yet, Curtis doesn’t approach these visions with any heightened level of stress. He considers his mom’s battles with schizophrenia as a possible reason for his impending madness. Only the dreams don’t get better, they intensify and Curtis soon has an unflinching need to renovate and expand the storm shelter in the backyard. He takes out a loan and threatens his job, his health insurance (which is vital to get his daughter a surgery she needs), and the family expenses in general.

As his madness puts a strain on his family, Curtis begins to hear the talk in town about his illness until everything explodes at a community center. The explosion is warranted, and the ferocity of Shannon’s performance in this moment pushes the events of Take Shelter over the edge. Curtis has reached a point where he may not return. A storm does come, and I won’t tell you the events of the final act; I will tell you there is a powerful and tense moment inside the shelter where Samantha forces Curtis to confront his fear.

Michael Shannon is an actor with one of the most unique faces in modern cinema. His gaze hints at madness boiling just below the surface. If you consider his previous performances in Bug and Revolutionary Road, it is clear Shannon is an actor of great intensity and command of the screen. But we mustn’t overlook the acting of Jessica Chastain here. Samantha is desperate to keep her family together and to save her husband, and her desperation ranges from sadness to fear to anger seamlessly. The performances in Take Shelter must remain grounded in the face of fears which are both imagined and very real. The nightmares may not indicate truths, but the repercussions affect the family in very real, economic ways.

Director Jeff Nichols handles the material with calmness and a firm grasp on the subjects in his picture. These are working class folks with real problems, not accentuated characters looking for melodrama. The picture falls into a rhythm in the second act where events grow somewhat repetitive. It loses steam as the visions take a back seat to Curtis and his thoughts. Nevertheless, Take Shelter is a film of our time. There are thriller elements at its heart, but the effectiveness of these events is how they affect health care and job security. In a time where everything has been pulled out from under families across this country, these may be more frightening notions than any oncoming storm.