Take Shelter

30 Oct

Title: Take Shelter
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: 
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
MPAA Rating: 
R, some language
Runtime: 
120 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.9
Rotten Tomatoes: 
93%

I keep saying 2011 is the year of Ryan Gosling, for the sheer fact that the guy has used the year, building up on the momentum he got late last year for the masterpiece that was Blue Valentine (my fourth favorite film of all 2010), to really establish himself not only as probably the greatest actor of his generation, but also a superstar that general audiences really adore. However, I’ve actually only seen one of Mr. Gosling’s films of 2011, that one being Drive, which I gave a perfect score to and stands as my favorite film of the year, and I’ve still to see Crazy, Stupid, Love. or The Ides of March, so I guess that a more logical choice for the thesp who’s had the biggest 2011 is Jessica Chastain.

If Mr. Gosling has used the year to establish himself as a superstar and not just some great actor, Ms. Chastain has used it as one incredible coming out party that only keeps getting better, an actress basically unknown half a year ago and now being one of the most ubiquitous we’ve seen in quite some time, and with the added luxury of having every film she’s been on be a really good one. This is the fourth film I’ve seen of Jessica Chastain this year, and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, once you take a look at those films your jaw drops just a tiny bit more, the first one was The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s latest masterpiece which stands as my second favorite film of the year so far and to which I gave a perfect score to, then I saw her in The Help, the critical and commercial success to which I gave an A- to, and then I saw her about a month ago in The Debt, to which I awarded a B+ to. That’s a pretty amazing slew of films to appear in the span of a single year, the fact that she still has Coriolanus and The Wilde Salome still to come, alongside heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes to name but a few, only reinforces that she’s really breaking out and establishing herself as an actress you really have to keep an eye on.

But we’re here now to talk about the fourth film starring Ms. Chastain I’ve seen this year, Take Shelter, and boy is it a stunning film. I seriously loved this one, a really subtle piece of work by writer-director Jeff Nichols, who knows how to craft a really awesome sense of uneasiness alongside really mesmerizing drama, and who gets yet another fine performance from Jessica Chastain who goes head-to-head with Michael Shannon, who delivers one of the very best performances of the year as Curtis LaForche, a man from a small town in Ohio who starts having some deeply disturbing apocalyptic hallucinations. This is really spellbinding filmmaking, a film that really creeps under your skin and makes you feel seriously uncomfortable in that great kind of way, using these apocalyptic visions as a metaphor to explore the general uneasiness that plagues the contemporary American family.

And it’s cool because even though you personally can’t connect to having these apocalyptic visions (or at least I hope you can’t, for the sake of your sanity) you can still connect to the feeling Curtis is experiencing, that uneasy vibe in the pit of your stomach that makes the hairs in the back of your head stand up, in which you’re absolutely certain that something horrible is about to happen, sooner rather than later. We’ve probably all felt that, but when we feel it it’s kind of like this paranoiac feel that lasts a second, we get it and then it leaves our mind, whereas Curtis is in that state 24/7, so you can kind of imagine how freaky it must feel for him trying to hold it all in. And it’s just amazing to see a thriller that relies on these mental kind of things and not on some kind of big event, probably of the supernatural kind, one that relies on us investing in this Ohio family that’s apparently quite happy in their existence until these strange occurrences threaten to deter their lives as the head of the family starts thinking the world’s pretty much about to end.

Because these are serious visions Curtis is dealing with, nightmares that leave him paranoid for the rest of the day, that he wakes up grasping for air to fight off that storm he has seen in his dreams that’s clouded the flat horizons of his small town, accompanied by a series of tornadoes and lightning. And this is all just really masterfully conveyed by Mr. Shannon, a guy that can appear to be this stable blue collar worker, a good husband and father, but that in his eyes can show this underlying sense of unease that really stays with you. This is a guy who apparently has all the needed ingredients for a happy life, but who’s now living with the ever-constant fear of it being taken away; his wife, Samantha, a stay-at-home mom who makes pillows to sell in fairs and their daughter, Hannah, who has lost her hearing, with mom and dad learning sign language as they wait for the insurance to deliver implants that will help her. On the surface they look like a rather typical middle-class family, gentle folk, who go to church and who have reasonably-sized ambitions, keeping their hopes up even amongst the horrible financial climate of our times.

So it’s really intense to watch Mr. Shannon play Curtis, a guy who partly believes that this is all about some approaching schizophrenia that also tormented his mother and who goes to a doctor to help him out with his sleep, having to pay richly for some pills, but also a guy who’s other part can’t help but make him believe that these dreams are real, that a storm is coming, and that he has to prepare in order to save his family. To do that he starts building a shelter in the backyard, and even as his friends and family start worrying about his sanity and ask him why he’s so hellbent on doing it he doesn’t confess to them and instead just calmly replies that it simply needs to be done. So we see the small community talking about Curtis behind his back, the only one of his paranoias that’s actually real, and his best friend trying his best to help him out, knowing that in this economy if he loses the job he has he might not find another one.

And it’s just amazing how Mr. Nichols chooses to show this to us, I mean, we always know that this is all inside Curtis’ head, but the way Mr. Nichols builds this film still makes us really uneasy about what’s going to happen next, making this an intensely nerve-racking experience that feels like a masterful horror film but that’s always just a really richly observed exploration of psychological collapse within the confines of a typical American family, it’s really amazing to watch it all unfold. We knew this was a talented filmmaker who in his debut, the amazing Shotgun Stories, show us he really had a terrific gift, and that film also featured Mr. Shannon, and his upcoming third project, titled Mud and to come out in 2013, will also feature the actor, making the Nichols-Shannon one of the most exciting tandems in modern filmmaking.

Because Michael Shannon really is impeccable in all of this, the energy and just the intensity he brings to his roles is always, no matter the project, seriously outstanding to watch, a character actor who by now has perfected that fine line between unhinged and sane, which he displays week in and week out in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, having given us roles that are sublime in their subtlety and now showing just how great he is by taking on a leading role. And that skill set adds to the way Mr. Nichols build up the tension, because even though we see in Curtis a deeply disturbed man, we also see a rational and intelligent one, caring for his family and thinking about his family history with ailments and going to library to check on that stuff, his crumbling down isn’t a thing that happens overnight. It’s a really stellar performance by Mr. Shannon here, filled with so much tension that you have to believe that something awful, storm or not, is about to happen to this man.

The storm, whether it’s real or hallucinated is just this really awesome metaphor Mr. Nichols creates alongside his amazing cast, the Oscar-nomination-worthy Mr. Shannon and Ms. Chastain, who elongates her amazing streak of stellar performances this year, and once the “storm” actually happens, there’s this incredibly powerful scene between the two that kind of concludes the film and lets the ending come to screen, and ending that will make you understand that you’ve just witnessed a pretty much perfect film, one that has managed to take, head-on, very real problems and melt them with these grand apocalyptic dreams, and that will leave you hungry for the next film this amazingly talented actor-director combo has in store.

Grade: A

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