Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Director: Jeff Nichols

****

Every once in a while, a film comes along that almost single-handedly promotes an actor from supporting player to nudging the A-list. Michael Shannon has been a commanding presence in many good and not-so-good films over the last number of years (World Trade Center, Revolutionary Road), with his intense stare and distinctive drawl, Southern fried and thick as molasses. One would wonder if that intensity would translate into blockbuster territory, but he is playing General Zod next, so we’ll see how it goes. The intensity is perfect for Take Shelter; much like its star, it’s an intense and unforgettable piece of work.

If you went through what Curtis LaForche (Shannon) goes through in Take Shelter, chances are you’d be somewhat edgy too. Jeff Nichols’ film opens with Curtis getting caught in a shower of thick oil-like rain. Then he wakes up, goes to his job as a well driller and all is well. That is, until the next stormy nightmare. And the one after that. And the one after that. Like the dreams, Take Shelter grows beautifully in intensity as Curtis plunges further into possible dementia. Are the dreams symptomatic of an illness or of a real impending disaster? Curtis considers both options, seeing a counsellor and building a massive storm bunker, much to the chagrin and upset of Curtis’ wife Samantha (the ethereal Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). As Curtis’ family, friends and job get swept up in his paranoia, Shannon is ever in the eye of the storm. His performance anchors Take Shelter, with a perfectly-defined and exhaustively crafted role. Whether or not he is mentally ill, Curtis is scarily focused and unshakeable, yet is always sympathetic. It will be an injustice if Shannon does not receive serious awards consideration for this role. Chastain and the rest of the support are uniformly excellent, but Shannon is the star on the cusp, and he owns this film.

Writer/director Nichols says the role wasn’t written specifically for Shannon, but he fits perfectly into Nichols’ disturbing vision of a small-town man confronting immense personal demons. Nichols wrings pure drip-feed tension from this scenario, with nightmares combining with the eerie banality of the everyday, culminating in a third act boasting such edge-of-the-seat magnetism as to render you unable to rip your eyes away from the screen. One of the most tense scenes of the whole year involves a man turning a door handle; with Take Shelter, the beauty is in the simplicity. Take Shelter is so unassuming that it’s a difficult film to characterize, and more might be revealed on second viewing. The final reel is either a perfect ending or a cop-out, but by then it doesn’t really matter; Take Shelter and its magnificent leading man will have left their thunderous impact upon you. Ignore it at your peril.

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