‘Take Shelter’, A Storm’s A Brewin’

Take Shelter:  4 out of 5
Curtis:  I’m gonna build out the tornado shelter in my back yard and I could use some help.
Dewart:  What the hell you wanna do that for?
Curtis:  Just needs to be done.
I am giving out a lot of admiration to quiet thrillers lately.  Between Martha Marcy May Marlene and this foreboding drama, one certainly needs to take a breath, sit back, and watch a simple comedy to keep from becoming too distraught in their own lives.  Take Shelter is a very well acted story about a man having visions of impending doom and how he and his family deal with it.  It features fantastic performances from the leads and serves as a direct alternative to many of the “in your face” thrillers that have come out over the year.  While it is another very deliberately paced drama, it is due to the lead actors that I was very drawn into what this film had to offer.

Michael Shannon (currently starring in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) stars as Curtis, a simple man living in a small town in Ohio.  Curtis is unfortunately going through some heavy psychological problems.  Despite living a normal life with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), Curtis has been suffering from incredibly intense dreams.  These dreams are all apocalyptic in nature, suggesting a possible oncoming storm that could be devastating on the world.  In all of these dreams, Curtis is also attacked in some way, practically leaving him physically injured and certainly feeling very ill while awake.

Curtis’ issues lead him to take two different paths.  As Curtis works in construction, he begins to do work in his backyard to build out and enhance his tornado shelter.  He borrows heavy equipment from work and spends an alarming amount of time and money to make the ultimate underground safe haven for him and his family.  Curtis’ other path has him acknowledging his problems and visiting a free clinic psychologist and studying up on schizophrenia, which his own mother (Kathy Baker) also suffers from.  As Curtis’ issues become more known to others, especially his wife, true worry begins, with concerns revolving around Curtis’ mental state as well as the future state of his family.

 Curtis:  Is anyone else seeing this?
The most notable aspect of this film that I want to make mention of is how strong I think the performances are.  Michael Shannon deserves lots and lots of acclaim for his work, because I think it is about as good a performance as I have seen in some time.  While I don’t think the movie is perfect, I believe that he is so into this role, with all of his various character traits, emotions, and physical qualities being perfectly handled, that he deserves far more acclaim than I believe this film will end up getting.  The way Shannon handles the quiet build of this film, dealing with these dreams, reacting, discussing his issues with others, and the eventual blow ups he has in front of others and during a storm that comes late in the film is all part of a great performance to have been watching.

Jessica Chastain, the busiest actress of 2011, is also incredibly good in a near equally difficult role as the wife who is challenged by all of this madness that her husband is exhibiting.  She has to balance being understanding, being authoritative, and making it all seem like a real natural performance, as opposed to letting things sink too far into cliché or melodrama.  It is not the intense performance that Shannon is required to give, but a more deliberately underplayed one that works well both for her character and as a way to compliment what her character’s husband is going through.

The story in this film is interesting.  It is not entirely complex and the film ends up being longer than it needs to be, but I did enjoy the intrigue that was presented.  Why is Curtis suffering from these visions?  What is it all supposed to mean?  How can the family get through all this?  While the final resolution does not necessarily wrap everything up with a pretty bow, the film creates a solid foundation of drama and leads into some pretty intense dream sequences early on.  As the film continues, dealing with the frustration and angst that Curtis and Samantha are going through nearly becomes a chore at points, but is mainly kept in check due to how good these actors are.

The film was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who manages to bring his independent filmmaking style into this (very) slightly higher budgeted project and do some pretty solid work.  While I have commented on the slow pace already, the rest of the film, which revolves around following Curtis as he descends into a sort of madness, is well done.  The dream sequences manage to be tense; as the building of frustration and fear, leading to the eventual release at key moments is done with a nice kind of precision.  Having read a description of Nichols’ next project, I am very curious to see what he is headed in the future.

I have clearly praised the performances the most in terms of what I think makes this movie work and I think that should be enough of a recommendation.  It is very deliberate in how it lets the story unfold and has scant moments of levity to help the viewer follow along with the stress that Curtis is going through, but it is a well done thriller on the obscurer side of this genre of filmmaking.  Apocalyptic visions and the descent into madness can only provide so much entertainment, but the use of actors who do not go over the top, but instead react in a grounded manner really help sell this quiet, little thriller.
Curtis:  I’m sorry.


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