Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Take Shelter

In 2007, newcomer Jeff Nichols directed his powerful debut film Shotgun Stories. The film stars Michael Shannon and focuses on two separate groups of half-brothers who are at a grudgingly brutal war with one another, despite the fact that they all share the same father. The film focuses on several powerful themes, mainly the senselessness of violence and revenge, and how it can only end in tragedy. The film received much critical acclaim, and yet it still remains relatively unknown to mass audiences to this day.

Four years later, Nichols finally made his follow-up feature, Take Shelter, and Michael Shannon returns also, with a similar character arc to his role in Shotgun Stories. While he acts with good intentions, he only brings himself and everyone close to him in a downward spiral.

Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, an everyday working man from a small town in Ohio, where he lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah. Curtis suddenly begins to have disturbing dreams with horrific events, like strangers kidnapping his daughter and his closest friends suddenly trying to harm him.

 Reluctant to tell anyone, he visits his mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, in fear that he might be developing the same illness. The visit is enough for Curtis to confirm his own suspicion that he is sick, and secretly begins seeing a therapist.

While every dream is different, they all have one interconnecting similarity: they all take place during an apocalyptic-like storm, so Curtis interprets them as a glimpse into the future. In spite of showing awareness of his sickness, he still feels the need to prepare for a delusional storm. As the dreams progressively become more violent and traumatizing, so does his mind, and people around him begin to notice, and his life begins to crumble.

While there are many films with a story that are told from the point of view of a schizophrenic (A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club, etc), the protagonist's illness is often not immediately revealed to the audience, and is instead used as a twist ending. Take Shelter differs from these films because it is immediately implied that Curtis is developing a mental disorder from the start. Knowing this, it seems the film will inevitably end in tragedy.

Depending on how you interpret the ending, that is exactly what Take Shelter is - a tragedy. Every action Curtis takes to protect his family from harm ironically only distances himself from his wife and friends, and instead of trying to fight the unnecessary urge to to build a storm shelter in his backyard, risking his both his job and marriage, he simply goes with it and accepts the consequences, as if he has no choice.

The film is very slow paced, so it heavily relies on actors to create characters that the audience care about and can invest in, since the script is almost entirely lacking in action. Fortunately enough, the actors are terrific all around. Michael Shannon's performance goes without saying - he is rapidly becoming one of those actors whose presence on screen requires that you never look away (Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road are testaments to this), and his role as Curtis is no different. It is a shame, because Shannon simply doesn't get the credit that he deserves as an actor.

Jessica Chastain is a living definition of a breakout star, coming seemingly out of no where in 2011 and delivering six terrific performances in one year, two of which were nominated for multiple Academy Awards (The Help and The Tree of Life). Her work in Take Shelter only further confirms her talent, because while Shannon and Chastain make an unlikely couple, they somehow have terrific chemistry together onscreen.

While the script is very polished, it does have a few drawbacks to it. The daughter's deafness, for example, is questionable in terms of it's contribution to the story. All that it seems to prove is that Curtis and Samantha are good parents, because they still love her all the same. However, the fact that the audience doesn't have to deal with  the unbearable sound of a bratty child whining and moaning at random moments throughout the film is always a bonus.

Only two movies in, and Jeff Nichols is proving himself to be a marvelous talent behind the camera, and I am already excited to see what his follow up feature will be. A lot of viewers might be out off by the last couple minutes of Take Shelter  because of it's "open for interpretation" ending, but it is really irrelevant to how solid the film is. If you're one of them close-minded folk who need proper closure by the time the screen fades to black, you  have been warned. But chances are, if you're reading this, you aren't.