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TAKE SHELTER proves that when the right filmmaker and actor
are involved, the hint of the possibility of violence can make an audience just
as uneasy as the direct threat of it. In this case, the filmmaker is Jeff
Nichols and the actor is Michael Shannon, and that underlying tension is just
one of the things that makes the movie so quietly powerful.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio husband (to Samantha,
played by Jessica Chastain), father (to hearing-impaired Hannah, played by Tova
Stewart) and blue-collar worker (SPLINTER and MACHETE’s Shea Whigham plays his
partner on construction jobs). Curtis has the common concerns about making ends
meet and providing for his family, but before the movie ever addresses those,
it shows us that he’s got a lot more worrying him. The opening scene finds him
in the midst of a dream of a threatening storm encroaching on his home—the
first in a series of frightening dreamtime visions that convince him that
disaster will soon befall him and his loved ones.
Are these truly prophecies of horrible events to come, or
are they simply nightmares, manifestations of other concerns troubling his
mind? Nichols keeps you nervously wondering throughout, though that’s not TAKE
SHELTER’s foremost concern. Front and center is the way Curtis’ nightmares
impact his waking behavior, in ways that seem increasingly irrational. Obsessed
about protecting his family, he ironically winds up threatening their
livelihood, sinking money he doesn’t have into a front-yard project that
consumes his attention. And yet he keeps his fears bottled up inside, refusing
to reveal them to the increasingly concerned Samantha. Although his actions are
clearly motivated by his love for his wife and little girl, a disturbing
undercurrent builds beneath the story, suggesting that his unhinged mind might
eventually lead them to physical harm.
All of this is played with quiet power by Nichols and
Shannon, who has memorably gone off the deep end in movies and TV ranging from William
Friedkin’s BUG to TV’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE, yet has never done so with quite the
coiled, interior intensity he brings to Curtis. Keeping sympathy for this man
even at his most mentally unsound is crucial to TAKE SHELTER’s success, and
with the exception of a late-coming public outburst, Shannon creates a portrait
of a man desperately trying to keep a lid on his mania, in such a way that you
can’t help feeling for Curtis. He conveys Curtis’ private terror so
convincingly that his every outward action feels understandable, perhaps
relatable in some ways, even as you wait nervously for his demons to consume
him and create hell for those around him.
Shannon is matched scene for scene by Chastain, revealing
once again that she deserves every bit of her 2011 It Girl status. As Samantha
tries to hold her family together while its provider is falling apart, Chastain
movingly balances her love and devotion to Curtis with growing desperation, and
together the two actors create a fully formed portrait of a marriage under
pressure. Young newcomer Stewart, actually deaf in real life, is effortlessly
naturalistic as Hannah, while Kathy Baker has a brief but impactful turn as
Curtis’ mother, who offers hints, if not quite a full explanation, for Curtis’
state of mind.
Moving a bit up the budget scale from his debut feature
SHOTGUN STORIES while still maintaining an independent aesthetic, Nichols
delivers a film that captures the suburban Midwest milieu just right, without
condescension or sentimentality, and links its day-to-day anxieties with the
particulars of Curtis’ more extreme paranoia. Adam Stone’s widescreen
cinematography helps tie it all together, juxtaposing images of unforced beauty
with suggestively ominous visuals (the latter in tandem with the stormy visual
FX by the hy*drau"lx company), as does David Wingo’s moving and haunting
TAKE SHELTER is a slow burn, one whose genre bona fides
shouldn’t be overstated at the risk of disappointing those who might go
expecting a more graphic portrait of disturbed behavior. It’s first and
foremost an absorbing portrait of an ordinary man in the grip of what he fears
may become extraordinary circumstances, and it maintains an apprehensive hold
on the viewer from first scene to last.
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