by Warren Curry
I’m not the kind of moviegoer who’s so enamored of an actor that I’ll see every film he/she stars in — but any movie featuring the talents of Michael Shannon, I must admit, is at least one I’ll strongly consider. It’s definitely fair to observe that at this point in his career Shannon’s risking being typecast as the proverbial loose canon, but any formula that works this well is one I’m reticent to change. “Take Shelter” continues Shannon’s winning streak.
The actor joins forces again with director Jeff Nichols (he starred in the filmmaker’s 2007 debut, “Shotgun Stories”) and brings his uniquely intense touch to the character Curtis LaForche, a seemingly once ordinary husband and father who appears to be quickly losing his sanity. He’s plagued by nightmares and a foreboding fear that a devastating storm is right around the corner.
Curtis’s family, which also includes wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), live a modest lifestyle, but money is tight and they rely on Curtis’s health insurance to care for Hannah’s needs. This makes it all the more troubling for Samantha when her husband’s erratic behavior begins to impact his work performance and his friendship with co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigam). Though his mother (Kathy Baker) has schizophrenia, Curtis is reluctant to undergo psychological counseling and further compromises his family’s financial predicament when he takes out a substantial bank loan to fund the construction of an enormous backyard storm shelter.
I hope it’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that things go from bad to worse for Curtis as he increasingly alienates himself from everyone around him. Nichols sets the film up so a certain amount of repetition settles in during the first half, which combined with the deliberate pacing makes for a slow burning movie. But as Curtis continues to unravel, the film firmly fastens its grip, culminating in a riveting final act.
Some of the images and D.P. Adam Stone’s neutral color scheme bring to mind the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” which shares the same ominous tone as “Take Shelter,” though the Coens, in their typical style, mask it as a dark comedy. Nichols chooses not to alter the mood, maintaining a tight focus throughout that greatly helps the film pick up steam as it progresses. This also clears the way for Shannon to deliver another superb effort in which he owns his character to such a complete degree that it’s difficult to believe the actor is actually someone completely different (I assume…and hope) in real life.
As one who greatly appreciates films that convey a sense of naturalism, it’s perhaps ironic that I’m such a big fan of Shannon since you can always feel the work he puts into his roles. Yet if there is a natural quality to Shannon’s acting, it’s how easily he inhabits such marginalized characters. From his Oscar nominated turn in “Revolutionary Road” to his combustible performance (a personal favorite) in “Bug,” you never get the sense the people he’s playing are real, yet that never makes them anything less than completely compelling. Simply put, when Shannon’s on screen your eyes are glued to him.
In the production notes, Nichols comments that he feels the anxiety explored in “Take Shelter” is a common trait for many today. And as certain sectors of society grow further at odds with each other (to say nothing of the continued economic instability), maybe Curtis LaForche is one of the more realistic characters Shannon has played. In fact, Nichols wraps up his film with a scene that implies that Curtis’s vision of a dark, disturbing near future is entirely less far-fetched than we might want to believe. It’s a powerful moment, simultaneously quiet and loud, that’s likely as perfect as any ending you’ll see this year.
Take Shelter (USA/2011)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigam, Kathy Baker
Rated R, 120 minutes
(Sony Pictures Classics. Opens in New York City and Los Angeles September 30, 2011.)