Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter ****
Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Michael Shannon (Curtis LaForche), Jessica Chastain (Samantha LaForche), Ray McKinnon (Kyle), Katy Mixon (Nat), Kathy Baker (Sarah), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Kendra), Tova Stewart (Hannah LaForche).

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a paranoid thriller about a man who thinks he is going insane, but cannot help himself. His mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when she about his age, and now he is starting to think he maybe heading down that same path. He has started to have dreams of a rain storm, where it is essentially oil and not water pouring down. These dreams also include some sort of violent episode – where he or his daughter are attacked by the family dog or a friend or a stranger or even his wife. So convinced is he that a storm is coming that he cleans out the old storm shelter in the backyard – and when he thinks that isn’t enough, he decides to expand it by taking out a home improvement loan his family cannot afford. He has a good job as a construction worker in rural Ohio, but he can’t concentrate on it. His world is collapsing all around him, and while he knows he is being irrational, he is powerless to stop it. Things are spiraling out of control.

The man is named Curtis and he is played in one of the best performances of the year by Michael Shannon – that actor who has quietly built up a hell of a resume playing characters who are not quite right in the head. Remember his fiercely determined office worker in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center or as the mentally deranged man in Bug or in the sick truth teller in
Revolutionary Road
? His work in Take Shelter is just as good as it was in those films, and yet for an actor who seems to always being playing paranoid characters, this simply is a rerun. All of his characters suffer differently, and Shannon plays them differently as well. Here, he is a normal guy whose paranoia is getting the best of him – he is equally convinced that he is becoming mentally ill and that he is completely right in his beliefs. These two sides fight with each other until he’s not sure what’s real anymore.

Writer/director Nichols, who made the wonderful but barely seen Shotgun Stories in 2008, has followed up that film, about two warring sets of sons of the same father (one set hates their old man, the other side adores him), with this view of suburban paranoia that immediately brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – and not just because of a few scenes involving actual birds. What both films share is a growing sense of unease, that things as seemingly perfect as they are, are not quite right. Hitchcock’s film was about the poisonous atmosphere in 1960s suburbia, and Nichols film is about the increasing paranoia in the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters – both man made and natural. As the movie goes along, Nichols plays with the sound a little bit, to get us inside of Curtis’ head – and it’s not a pretty place to be.

The tension in the movie grows until it is almost unbearable. Shannon gives the films best performance, but praise too should be given to Jessica Chastain who plays his wife, who loves him and cares about him, but is trying to look out for their future together – and the future of their daughter, who is deaf and needs surgery. Take Shelter is a thriller – and a well made thriller at that – but what makes the film so special is how real and immediate the film feels. This is a story about how we live right now.

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