Saturday, March 3, 2012

Netflix This: Take Shelter

     Take Shelter is one of those films that relies on a performance of one actor, a performance that is central to the greatness of the film as a whole. Michael Shannon, who is always totally captivating (particularly in Bug, Shotgun Stories, Revolutionary Road, and--lately--HBO's Boardwalk Empire as Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden), stars as Curtis LaForche, a construction worker whose dreams and visions of an impending doomsday storm--full of oil-slicked rain and violent chain lightning--draws him into the depths of underground storm shelters and madness. It's a performance that is nothing short of incredible, and it adds another bullet point on my list of reasons of why the 2012 Oscar nominations were the equivalent of a sack filled with foul dog feces (not that the five Best Actor nominees were not good, but I'd take Shannon's performance over any of them).
     Michael Shannon is an actor that always looks creepy and uneasy, like he is about to snap and murder everyone on screen at any moment. But his portrayal of Curtis in Take Shelter is better and more subtle than that: at the beginning of the film, he seems content, even happy, a man with nothing to gain but everything to lose. He's got a supporting wife, a cute daughter who is deaf (she's on the verge of a transplant that will help her regain some of her hearing if the family's health insurance comes through), and a loving family dog. His house sits in a field where the skies are endless and clouds look like mountains on the horizon line.
     Everything's great--until the dreams start. At first they are short and intense, a snippet of the family dog attacking him and biting his arm (his arm hurts the entire next day) or chain lightning with dark, ominous clouds littering the big sky. The dreams are ultra-realistic, and they confuse Curtis and the viewers of Take Shelter about what is real and what is imagination. Director Jeff Nichols, whose previously mentioned Shotgun Stories is also a small, intense drama starring Shannon, is already a pro at building suspense and dread. As the dreams occur more frequently and more intense, Curtis must come to grips with one of two things: either his visions are the product of the illness in his mind, or they are something far more serious, real visions signifying the devastation of everything he has in his life due to a more dangerous and unpredictable climate.
     Curtis and his erratic behavior start to worry everyone in his life, specifically his wife (Jessica Chastain, in her 7th film role this year), who is amazingly forgiving and supportive of her husband who is losing his shit. His co-worker, Dewart (portrayed by another Boardwalk alum, Shea Whigham), also bear's the brunt of the fallout of the vivid dreams. The news of his possible mental illness spreads quickly, as news in small towns seemingly always does without effort, and soon the paranoia that Curtis feels seems justified in some regard. Far into the film, Shannon's portrayal of Curtis at a community dinner--where everyone is staring and whispering like cruel schoolchildren--is especially poignant. The outburst is shocking, sad, and brilliant acting.
     I watched Take Shelter after I wrote my Top 10 list for 2011. It wouldn't have made that list, but it's not too far away. It's a slow-building, intense drama about a man who may or may not be mentally ill. The story as a whole, without giving away its ending that leaves you thinking days after watching it, can be--without much effort--taken as an allegory about global warming. Curtis's visions, like the more-and-more powerful storms and tornado patterns that are happening every year, can be accepted or denied. But acceptance or denial doesn't affect the weather, even when the glaciers are melting at an astounding rate, the streets are flooding with rain, and the oceans are turning into hot tubs.

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