TAKE SHELTER B+
USA (116 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Jeff Nichols
USA (116 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Jeff Nichols
Not quite the poetic masterwork of his original film Shotgun Stories (2007), this is nonetheless a starkly accurate depiction of a fissure taking place in one person’s reality, using a slowly building tension beautifully exemplified through another shattering performance by Michael Shannon as Curtis, something of a follow up to his role in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), where this also examines a Shannon character going berserk, only here it’s much more refined and nuanced, where he’s simultaneously still preserving his sanity alongside another part of himself that is strangely affected by apocalyptic visions. While Curtis is a blue collar working class guy with a loving wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain in another outstanding performance, and a deaf six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), he is depicted early on as a lucky guy that has everything, whose life when observed by others would be considered “good.” But Curtis starts acting strangely, like seeing things that aren’t there, accompanied by violent nightmares and premonitions. The key to understanding his progressive isolation is that he shares this with no one, continually maintaining everything is fine even as he sees the world become an ever more threatening place, which is the standard template for horror films, creating a palpable sense of slowly building tension, using a deliberate and methodical pace to maximize a growing sense that something inevitable is coming. What’s unique about this director’s approach is that a dire sense of dread develops just from the clues themselves, which are of such a provocative and unsettling nature that they begin to overwhelm Curtis, forcing him to take measures into his own hands, becoming zealously protective of his family, even as they have no understanding whatsoever that anything is wrong.
Curtis has a family history of mental illness, however, as his mother experienced a schizophrenic episode in her mid 30’s where she eventually lost herself, hospitalized and separated from her family, eventually spending the rest of her life in an assisted care facility. The impact of her experience has had a profound effect on Curtis, now in his 30’s himself, who has vowed never to leave his family, knowing how devastated it left him as a young boy. But recognizing that something within him continually sees things that aren’t there creates an overwhelming obstacle for him to overcome, a similar premise of A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), yet he’s bound and determined to survive with his family intact, becoming obsessed with building a protective state-of-the-art storm shelter in the back yard, something even survivalists would envy, which eventually causes a commotion in the community where people wonder what the fuss is all about. Retreating from all social obligations only makes things worse, as that puts additional social pressure on his wife and child, who are eventually ostracized and shunned by his peculiar behavior, but also stunned at the vivid power of Curtis’s highly evolved level of fear, horrified at what appears to be an untreated case of paranoid delusions. Chastain, as she was in Malick’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life, is positively saintly as the trusting and overly nurturing mother and wife who continues to hold sympathy for that part of her husband she still recognizes.
The film does feature a prominent appearance from Shea Wigham, one of the featured characters in David Gordon Green’s ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003), where there’s a detectable poetic streak of landscapes, ordinary objects, and a deluge of rain coming from the Green camp of indie filmmaking, including the use of David Wingo’s original music, which has some truly exceptional moments. This was the winner of the Critics Weekly award at Cannes, or Best New Director of first or second feature films, something of a surprise considering the lack of revelations in the filmmaking technique, though it does have a unique structure, a horror film without ever providing the horror, only an uneasy anticipation of the inevitable. The film is quite compelling nonetheless, but very slow in developing, which may surprise some, as the bleak apocalyptic future is largely inferred, never really showing a payoff, which is in itself peculiar, especially with such an actively suspenseful build up, always feeling something ominous is about to happen, but also wondering if Curtis actually has a unique supernatural sense, like a state of grace, or is simply losing his grip on reality, descending into a much darker realm. Chastain and Shannon actually work very well together, much better than her work with Brad Pitt in Malick’s The Tree of Life, where there her most adorable scenes are with the children. She’s a wise and thoughtful adult here, very sympathetic towards her husband’s vulnerability and purpose, knowing he’s spent his entire life striving to overcome this moment, never more tenuous than his own intensely personal descent into the void of the unknown.