Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Take Shelter

Like the recurring nightmares that torment its main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), Take Shelter is frustratingly slow-moving at times, but it lays down shock waves of dread that keep rippling outward long after it ends.

At first, Curtis hides his terrifying dreams and waking hallucinations—and, most importantly, the deepening paranoia they both reflect and intensify—from his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain). But when he finally trusts Sam with the truth, he learns the strength of the family bond that is his main motivation for trying to keep it together, and this story’s true subject.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols stages the family’s everyday life as unshowily shot kitchen-sink realism. They’re in the heartland of America, not just geographically—Curtis, Samantha, and their adorable young daughter live in a small town in Ohio—but economically, perched as they are on the uneasy edge of middle-class comfort. An elegant cut early on takes us from the big drill Curtis and his work buddy, Dewart (Shea Wigham) operate on their job site to the sewing machine Samantha is running as she sews to supplement her husband’s income. Meanwhile, references to strained family budgets and close-ups of the mac and cheese, fried pork chops, and potato salad piled onto dinner plates keep reminding us that everyone’s finances are as shaky as Curtis’ state of mind. As Curtis’s brother warns him: “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.”

Against that backdrop, Curtis’ dreams and hallucinations are that much more dramatic. Set during or just before spectacular, CGI-assisted storms, they are usually bathed in the brilliant, soft light of a bright sun filtered through a thick layer of clouds. The light, those clouds—broad blue-gray brushstrokes above a color-saturated blue-green landscape—and the frequent slashes of lightning or rustle of wind through the leaves are all charged with a sense of potentially catastrophic excitement. Into this surrealistic setting come figures right out of Hitchcock or zombie movies: swirling flocks of black birds and shadowy human forms that pound at locked doors or break car windows, pulling Curtis’s daughter out and away from him forever.

Curtis doesn’t know whether his dreams and waking visions are a sign of the schizophrenia that overtook his mother when she was his age or visions of a coming apocalypse that only he can see. And so, even as he seeks psychological help, he risks bankrupting his family to expand their underground storm shelter into a bunker. We don't know what to believe either, since Nichols keeps both possibilities wide open right down through the ending, which can be read literally or as another of Curtis’s visions.

Trying to figure out whether he’s a prophet or a madman gives us something to do while the pace lags during a slow, often repetitive first hour or so, during which Curtis and his family play variations on the same few themes, often with predictable consequences. But the tension builds as Curtis falls apart, coming to an almost unbearably suspenseful peak in a riveting sequence in the storm shelter.

Shannon signals Curtis’s vulnerability and instability largely through body language. Moving like a prisoner of some unseen force field, he seems stiff and tentative and awkward at the same time that his square jaw and tall body radiate menacing power. Even when his face isn’t lit from below or pooled in shadow like something from a horror film, we’re uncomfortably aware of how close he is to erupting and hurting someone, maybe even the wife and daughter he lives for.

Chastain matches Shannon’s realistic intensity beat for beat as Samantha, who is as loving a mother as the one she played in The Tree of Life but much tougher and more competent—a real woman rather than an idealized childhood memory. (Between this, her tough Mossad agent in The Debt, and her sweet peroxide ditz in The Help, Chastain has already shown more range this year than most actors do in a lifetime’s worth of roles.) When the two go head to head, especially in the storm shelter scene, Take Shelter stops meandering in and out of blind alleys and coalesces into a moving portrait of a loving family under siege.

Written for TimeOff

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