Monday, November 7, 2011

Take Shelter

There's a certain attitude that comes with a film that's deemed to be awards-worthy. The film will pick up buzz, whether for it's writer, director, actors, or technical achievements, and then it has to be pigeonholed. It has to be described as some sort of "drama," whether than means being referred to as a "dramedy" instead of a comedy (see: Juno), an "adventure drama" instead of a fantasy (see: The Lord of the Rings), or a "psychological thriller" instead of a horror film (see: The Silence of the Lambs). It's something of a recent development, since once upon a time Oscar at least pretended to love all genres (with the exception of horror and sci-fi, of course). All of this is to say that Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' latest film starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, is being marketed as a drama, but the reality is that it's a psychological horror.


Curtis (Shannon) is having apocalyptic visions: storms that destroy everything while strangers try to abduct his hearing-impaired daughter. As his visions become more and more problematic, he begins to take drastic measures: buying a shipping crate to build a storm shelter in the backyard (complete with ventilation and running water) and stocking it with essential supplies. He also seeks therapeutic help, as it turns out his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia around his age. But will his marriage to Samantha (Chastain) survive his breakdown?

Nichols, who's only previous film is 2007's Shotgun Stories, proves himself to be a quietly brilliant storyteller here, layering the story (he wrote and directed) with suspense and enough character details to make the proceedings fascinatingly complex. However, at 120 minutes, the film could have used some trimming; there's perhaps one vision too many, and there's a few minor scenes that aren't completely necessary to the story. That said, the film is beautifully shot, with several truly outstanding images of storms on the horizon.


The film's greatest strength, though, is it's two leads. Shannon is nothing short of remarkable, letting his body language and facial expressions do most of the communicating. For the most part its a subdued, subtle work, but Shannon gets a chance to rage magnificently in a key scene where he confronts his neighbors about his behavior. Equally astonishing (perhaps more so) is Chastain, who gives a performance that's a complete 180 from her ditzy goofiness in The Help and her serene symbolism in The Tree of Life. So much of her performance here is internalized, yet she easily conveys everything with just a simple look. It's her best work so far in what's turned out to be her breakout year.


Take Shelter presents an interesting take on mental illness, and allows itself to be just ambiguous enough to let the terror of such a condition seep through. It's a worthy glimpse into the mind of a very troubled man. B+

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