Friday, April 8, 2016

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols' new film Midnight Special opens today. This review of a previous film, Take Shelter, was written at the time of its release. Also, check out another Nichols' film, Mud. Highly recommended.

Riders on the Storm
"Take Care of Your Family.  Handle Your Business."

The Laforches, Curtis (Michael Shannon) and Sam (Jessica Chastain) are re-united in the evening—he from his construction job, she from her consignment cottage-business and taking care of their daughter Hanna. They hold each other in the doorway of their daughter's room, as the child sleeps soundly. And even though their daughter is deaf, they still speak in hushed tones.  "I still take my boots off before I come in the house," he says, wondering at the extra precaution.

"I still whisper," she murmurs, smilingly, in reply.

It's a lovely little scene in a resolutely controlled horror film.* But, it's emblematic of the themes of Take Shelter as a whole.  Curtis and Sam are made for each other, protecting their family, even unnecessarily. They just approach it from different ways. "You've got a good life, Curtis," says his friend and co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham). "That's the best compliment. Look at a man's life and say that he's doing everything right."

Yep. But that good life is about to be tested. And woe to the prophet who sees things no one else can, be they Moses, Jor-El, Melanie Daniels, Roy Neary, or Dr. Miles J. Bennell. Despite their special knowledge, they are, at best, ignored, and, at worst, (well, aside from their planet blowing up), shunned and reviled...from those who do not see and are deaf to his warnings. Nobody likes a party-pooper, however good their intentions. And that "special knowledge" will test the best of marriages and relationships.** Especially when it comes to family. He's doing crazy stuff to protect them, and she's wondering if he's crazy and should get out of the also protect them. The goals are the same, but coming from opposite points of view. The potential for a train-wreck is dire.

But "dire" is exactly what Curtis is worried about. His region of Ohio is being pelted by severe thunderstorms and even when the rains cease, the cloud don't part but roil in the background heaving shafts of lightning to the fields below.

Then, there are the dreams that involve those closest to him attacking him, leaving him gasping in panic attacks, costing him sleep...and perspective. The dream-scapes become more and more...uh, nightmarish as torrential rains obscure vision, townies become zombie-like predators and the laws of Nature are supplanted by cheap courtroom theatrics, birds, reflecting the odd flying patterns seen in his real life, rush in a fevered frenzy and begin dropping out of the sky, dead. The rain becomes oily, then God knows what will happen.

But only God. Curtis' visions doesn't extend that far.

Of course, he could merely be going crazy, like his wife and neighbors think, especially when he spends a lot of money and risks his job to expand the storm shelter out back. And, then, there's his family history—his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis' age. Maybe pills will stop the oncoming onslaught if it is only in his mind. 

But what if it doesn't? 

Take Shelter is discomfiting, just as Hitchcock's The Birds is. No explanation is made and one is kept guessing throughout. And writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) manages to, again, take a simple idea, and expand it to feature length, keeping the film centered on human drama rather than ignoring the potential of the story with empty spectacle. Shannon delivers a dangerously controlled performance that only snaps into a rant at one particularly inappropriate moment. And Jessica Chastain continues her roll of extraordinary movie-choices and making her parts uniquely her own, not unlike her co-star from The Help, Sissy Spacek. All in all, an interesting exercise in dread.

* I use the term advisedly, as Take Shelter is an "Environmental Horror" film, in the same genus as Hitchcock's The Birds, or M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening.  There are no slashings, and hardly any blood is spilled, but it does mess with your head and keep you guessing.  Oh, yes it does.

** Think of the Nativity, and the conversation that ensued when Mary told Joseph "I'm pregnant and God did it.  Oh...and Merry Christmas."

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