Friday, October 07, 2011

Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker, Katy Mixon

Take Shelter storms into cinemas buoyed by the strength of Michael Shannon’s sensitive, intimate portrayal of a quiet family man who has frightening visions of devastating storms.

Curtis is a caring family man who sees visions of immense storm clouds that rain an oil-like liquid. His troubles increase when he realizes that no one else can see the visions. He hides it from his wife Samantha and young deaf daughter Hannah.

As the visions get weirder—his dog attacks him in one—he quietly decides to heed them as true premonitions. He starts by building a backyard enclosure to sequester his dog, which irks Samantha. At the same time, owing to his mother’s history of mental illness, he hedges his bets by seeking medical and psychiatric help, but nothing works.

To his wife’s horror, he takes out a high-risk loan in order to build an elaborate underground shelter by burying a shipping container in the backyard. He borrows a digger from his construction job and enlists the help of his best friend and coworker Dewart, who early in the film had told Curtis “Youve got a good life,” something that Curtis now seems to be endangering.

The tensions climax when Hannah’s cochlear implant is jeopardized by Curtis losing his job and health insurance, due to his increasingly paranoid preventive actions. An outburst at a community gathering finally isolates the family completely. Despite everything, Samantha draws closer to Curtis over his deep love for Hannah. The family must now face Curtis’s frightening visions together.

The film is simultaneously an intense and understated drama. There’s a carefully nuanced rendering of all events, but not much along the lines of dramatic plot developments. The slow-moving story is explored in minute details, with a rigorous singularity of purpose by the director Jeff Nichols. The performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are incredibly well realized, both actors clearly capable of the highest echelon of roles. Shannon plays a taciturn, troubled man, but you can read huge emotion in the slightest facial movements. Even the lines on his face seem to ooze with depth.

The problem is the film is of that typical American indie ilk which only has one idea to communicate. It explores the idea thoroughly, and the revelations at the end are satisfying when we eventually get to them, but along the way there is not much else to stimulate the intellectually curious viewer. This is a cinema of emotion—an actor’s cinema. The filmmaker’s big idea is metaphorical, but the idea is so single-minded that it becomes a one-note metaphor, so you must really like that note to enjoy the film. To be fair, the full concept is not revealed until the end of the film, and even then it is somewhat ambiguous, so you actually are asked to think. But unlike a potboiler, the mystery is: What is this metaphorical film getting at? This results in a more satisfying time contemplating the movie afterwards than actually watching it.

Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed it, has a highly personalized take on family life, and life in general, that perhaps will not ring true with everyone. Things are bleak, although not without hope. As a metaphorical work, it may not have the universality that the director seems to feel it does: His film has a noticeably ponderous weight to it, arising from the snail-pace and carefully composed look. The film is so carefully framed and color-corrected that it loses a bit of the looseness that a more natural look, allowing in a few imperfections, might have provided. Despite the insularity of the filmmaker’s vision, the film achieves some powerful realizations in these characters’ lives which may please some viewers. But the audience is still left wondering why the world in this film so gloomy, and in the end the film may not have a good enough answer.

Take Shelter is worth watching for the deeply observed and nuanced performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, but it is a film with only one metaphorical idea behind it all. A bit of an oppressive night at the cinema, but if you let Michael Shannon pull you into his deeply troubled world, you may come away provoked and encouraged by the unexpected conclusion.

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