Sunday, November 13, 2011

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter is a confident and original piece of American filmmaking that betrays itself in the end in the service of I'm not sure exactly what. The film is a horror movie of sorts, but one where the horrors are interior right up until the point when they're not. I can't think of another actor better suited for the role of Curtis LaForche than Michael Shannon, whose expressive eyes convey all manner of inner turmoil. Curtis is an Ohio workingman, happily married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and the father of hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). From the very beginning of Take Shelter, we're immersed in Curtis's violent, apocalyptic dreams, which involve his storms, his family under attack, and some discreetly used special effects. Perhaps the wisest choice that Nichols makes in conceiving the world of the film is to avoid bludgeoning us with the disturbing imagery of Curtis's mind. After early scenes establish the level of his mental disorder in his head, Nichols cuts away from a violent dream that Curtis has about Samantha and in another case has Curtis simply relate a dream about being attacked by a co-worker (Shea Whigham). Curtis is smart enough to realize what's happening, since his mother (a haunting Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Curtis was a boy. As his delusions seem to warn of a coming catastrophe Curtis begins to expand a small tornado shelter outside his house, to the confusion of his family and his own professional ruin.

Everything that happens in the "real" world of Take Shelter is grounded in the economic and social reality of America, circa 2011. Curtis and Samantha are stable, but barely; they depend on his health insurance for Hannah's cochlear implant and her bazaar sales for extra money to take a vacation. Good mental health care is hard to come by; the best Curtis can do is a genial counselor (LisaGay Hamilton). The baroque horrors in Curtis's head played against the mundane horrors of the family checking account are what give Take Shelter it's emotional power. Shannon's placidity is disturbing because we know what's going on inside, and it serves to make the moment scarier when his mind spills over at a community potluck supper. Jessica Chastain, continuing her yearlong personal film festival, is Shannon's equal in every respect. The balance of fear, love, and self-preservation in Chastain's eyes when a real storm takes the family to the new shelter is as stirring as anything I've seen this year. Why then does Jeff Nichols betray these performances and the world he created in such detail? The ending of Take Shelter is a cheat, not a trick, and I have to question why someone who'd end the film this way would even bother to make it at all. I await Nichols' next film with great interest, but in his desire to make a grand statement here he has made a good film that ends up being about less than he intended.


Anonymous said...

Wow. You really misunderstood the end of the film.

Simon Crowe said...

How so? The larger point is that the ending doesn't mean anything, a twist for the sake of a twist.