Take Shelter (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Dec/111

Take Shelter (2011)

 

Looks like another cheery film for ol' Andrew this week.

It's getting to be impossible to go to the cinema to escape.  Just last week I saw how the world is going to end and it's not worth getting upset about, near the beginning of the year I saw how we are squandering our precious resources, and even the best comedies are tinged with the current economic crisis.  Our lightest films have become some of our most miserable fare, and the storm is still just waiting ahead.

Take Shelter is the latest in this apocalyptic line, standing strong with empathy where others seek to warn or merely console.  This film steps outside the crumbling world of one man who can't take the pressure of being alive in these times and escapes into an End of Days fantasy.  But Jeff Nichols is not interested in presenting another end of the world story, but telling the story of how the working class just can't take it anymore.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is being poisoned.  It's not physical and there is seemingly no direct cause to his malady, save an aging mother who had to be institutionalized with schizophrenia and hangs over his life at all times.  He's in his mid-30's, the same time his mother went away, and he dreams of rain tinged with motor oil raining down on his head.  Soon the storm of his dreams is predicated by a flock of birds with no idea where to go.  Then he's fending off his daughter from those affected by the rain, and in short time he is bringing these fantasies into reality.  He acts in spite of himself, refurbishing a storm shelter for something he doesn't understand, and seemingly helpless in the face of his compulsion.

This is the first film I've seen in a very long time with such empathy for both the working class and for those with mental illness.  Nichols' style is accustomed to both, adopting a fairly straight approach with his visuals and allowing the subtly out of control violins on the soundtrack to suggest what Curtis is hearing all the time.  Not too fancy, but just enough to get an idea of what's going on, and Nichols spends plenty of time at Curtis' construction site to show how empathetic he is to their occasionally monotonous daily routines.

Even through the anger, you get a sense of the helpless love these two have for each other.

Part of what makes Curtis' affliction so affecting is that we spend equal time inside and outside of his head.  He is a man completely at war with himself, taking out loans he can't pay for during a storm season he's been warned about for a time which may never come.  Outside we get to see what he looks like to his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a woman you'd wish was in your corner no matter the cost, as he wakes up crying night after night before slipping further and waking up to find blood on the sheets.  All the while they toil to provide for their deaf daughter, who will grow up blissfully unaware of the severity of dad's nights when she was younger, and hopefully will be the first to avoid the family condition.

There's no easy source to blame for Curtis' condition.  The "shock and awe" presence of the media is felt but, wisely, not focused on or abandoned.  Curtis' difficulty at getting a small loan just adds to his anguish.  He has difficulty completing the work he needs done and only has the weather to blame.  Weather which takes it 's cues from both the Japanese tidal wave of last year and the BP oil spill of the year before.  Even prior to his issues with health insurance, this man is feeling the weight of every little thing which could impact the working class.

The movie is suggesting it's no wonder we haven't all gone insane yet.  The other possibility is that, in light of recent event's, the apocalypse we once thought insane can be seen almost every couple of months.  Increase the scale, lower the resolve of the people, and it's the end.  Curtis has every right to be afraid, it's just a shame we are the only one's who can see why.

Pity to be able to see your future and still be helpless to stop it.

This year should, finally, belong to Michael Shannon.  His performance in Take Shelter is the best, finally reigning in some of his more chaotic impulses of previous work (Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and replaced it with an uncontrollable sadness.  He keeps his insanity to unexplored spaces, because in films we are so used to seeing the mentally ill as a threat to others or in need of constant care.  Jessica Chastain quite wisely tunes her own performance to this need, and the result is an outcropping of empathy in the most unexpected places.

Make no mistake though, this film is undeniably tense.  In spite of his obvious mental issues, recent disasters have taught us one thing - he may be right.  Also, Nichols catches the horror of a night terror far too well.  I started to feel claustrophobic and panicked during a dream where he sees his wife infected by the rain and his eyes go to the knife on the table.  Back to her, back to the knife, again and again until he shakes his head and starts to cry.

There is a lot which can be said about this film; Cold War masculinity and it's final necessary death here, the impossibility of true success, and (of course) the war on the working class.  But that scene encompasses the empathy I respond to on an almost instinctual level.  It is sad, yes, because we are so helpless sometimes.  It's even worse when we realize it never ends.

Take Shelter (2011)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Fantastic review. Your conclusion goes deep into the psyche of people. I liked the film as well – very “tense” like you said.


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