Written & Directed By Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, and Kathy Baker
MPAA: R - For Some Language]
"True! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story." ~Edgar Allen Poe's Tell-Tale Heart
As I've stated in my We Need To Talk About Kevin review, the horror genre has been going through a transformative period. While we still have solid schlock here and there, a majority of the best horror movies recently don't really count as horror since they've been melding together with more high-brow fair. Martha Marcy May Marlene, Black Swan, We Need To Talk About Kevin are all horror masterpieces and they're less about the horror elements and more about character studies about terrifying characters.
It's gotten to the point that today's movie, Take Shelter isn't even really a horror movie in the slightest despite having a premise that could've easily fallen prey to the cliches of psychological thrillers about people going crazy. If anything, it's more of a domestic drama than anything else and it's better for it. Take Shelter is quite possibly the most criminally overlooked movie of last year that you'd be remiss to not see.
Take Shelter is the story of Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), a man who has everything he needs to live a happy life: A beautiful, loving wife (Jessica Chastain), an innocent daughter, a job that pays for what he needs, and just enough time to have a drink with his buddies. As is typical in the world of movies, however, Curtis's perfect life begins to shatter.
He begins having dreams of a terrible storm coming. This isn't just any storm, however. It's apocalyptic. The rain looks like motor oil, the birds start exhibiting swarm behavior, people start going crazy and attacking Curtis. The dreams become so intense that Curtis starts to see them more as visions than anything else. Realizing that his family may be in danger of the oncoming storm, Curtis decides to renovate the tornado shelter in his yard. But as the dreams keep getting more and more intense, Curtis becomes more and more desperate to rebuild the shelter to the point that his expenses are dwindling and his relationship with his family becomes more and more unstable.
Reading this synopsis, it sounds almost like a hybrid of Melancholia and Repulsion. The impending threat of a horrible disaster that will wipe out anything and everything that you hold dear to you mixed with the bat-shit hallucinations and mind-fuckery of a psychological thriller. But Take Shelter isn't as operatic as Melancholia, and it isn't a horror film like Repulsion or Black Swan. As mentioned before, it's more of a domestic drama than anything else.
The thing with psychological thrillers is that they're about the melding between fantasy and reality to the point that both the protagonist and the viewer can't tell which is really which. Take Shelter isn't about that, however. In fact, it's actually pretty obvious which segments are dream and which are reality. In fact, one feature that I found refreshing is that for the first 2 thirds of the movie, there's a part of Curtis seems almost fully aware of the fact that he's going crazy. He even seeks help at a free clinic, though you can probably guess how the results of that go.
What Take Shelter is more concerned about is how Curtis's psychosis affects his familial life. The ultimate dilemma of the movie isn't how Curtis will be able to distinguish between reality and his imagination, rather it's more along the lines of: What will he lose as a part of this? Will his wife still love him? Will his friends still be by his side? Can he even pay for his own house when all this is over? Will it even end?
It is this that gives Take Shelter more stakes than the average psychological thriller. We truly do care about what becomes of Curtis's psyche, and we are rooting for him to pull through. And if that isn't enough, then it should be worth noting that Michael Shannon gives the best performance of his career. To say that he was robbed of an Oscar this year is a major understatement. It's a powerful and showy role, but at the same time the intensity is quiet and unnerving rather than in your face and bombastic. He keeps his emotions subdued, like he just knows that any outburst could destroy his family. And when the inevitable outburst does come, it's totally earned and absolutely terrifying.
But perhaps even better is Jessica Chastain as Curtis's wife Sam. Chastain has to be one of the biggest break-out stars I've ever seen, just in terms of sheer veracity in how she just came out of freaking nowhere. A year ago, we had no idea who she was. Then, after playing the ethereal, angelic mother in Terrence Malick's magnum opus The Tree of Life, she just, all of a sudden, started popping up in every movie whether it be mainstream (The Help and The Debt) or independent (Ralph Fiennes' modern interpretation of Coriolanus, and now this). I don't know how her agent did it, but I don't care because I'd love to see more of her. Chastain is exceptionally talented at bringing a warmth and loving grace to just about every role I've seen her in. Except while The Tree of Life had her playing the personification of an archetype, she has more range to work with in Take Shelter. While this is definitely Shannon's movie, Chastain is also a marvel to behold.
Jeff Nichols's direction is wonderful. It's subtle, but not too subtle like his previous film Shotgun Stories, which I personally found to be boring and uninvolving. He layers the film with a thick atmosphere that provides this false sense of calm. You know that feeling you get when you're sitting in your house during a thunder storm, and it sounds calm and soothing despite the gloom and dread. Well, imagine that, except whenever you look out the window, you can see a tornado slowly getting closer to your house, and you can't get out. That's the atmosphere of Take Shelter. Beautifully shot, filled with quiet dread, the threat of an impending disaster just waiting to happen.
The pacing is also of my favorite kind. The film moves at a steady, slow clip but it's never, ever boring. This allows you to lose yourself in the film's world, it's characters, and their struggles. Nothing is ever rushed, everything keeps building on itself like bricks and cement so that the foundation the movie stands on is strong and firm.
What I liked the most about Take Shelter is that it isn't just about a guy going crazy. There's more subtext to the film that is going on. The fact that the movie plays out more like a domestic drama is more deliberate than you'd think. The threat of the storm represents Curtis's fears of familial problems, and in trying to avoid them, he brings them onto himself. It's the ultimate Oedipal, self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no running away from the things you can't control, the forces of nature included.
All this leads to an incredible climax and a fascinatingly open-ended conclusion. Without spoiling anything, the climactic scene with Shannon and his family having to make a decision is powerful, gripping, and incredibly emotional. It was equal parts suspenseful and heart-breaking, a combination that you don't see often.
The ending however, is fantastic but has its flaws. While I did like the open-endedness of the film's conclusion, there's a fundamental problem with it: You can really only properly interpret it one way. If you interpret it "the correct way" then it makes sense and it's beautiful and poignant. Great! But, if you take the ending literally and at face-value, then it makes no sense. The reason why Martha Marcy May Marlene's even more ambiguous ending works so well is because you can interpret it either way and no matter which way you see it, you are still left in that same limbo that Elizabeth Olsen's character is in: Hanging in the air unaware of which is which. Take Shelter's ending is powerful, but only if you look at it in the right angle.
Regardless, this is a film that more people need to see. Not only is it one of the most criminally overlooked films of 2011, it's one of the best as well.
Final Verdict: Hauntingly subtle, flawlessly acted, poignant, and atmospheric. Take Shelter is a seamless blend of drama and psychological dread that will not only leave you on the edge of your seat, but with food for thought and emotional undercurrents that will stay with you long after seeing it.
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See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to start digging. Why the hell aren't there any tornado shelters in Los Angeles?