In Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter, Michael Shannon gives the performance of the year as Curtis, a blue-collar Midwestern family man whose increasingly intense nightmares about an approaching storm begin to haunt his waking hours and compel him to construct and stock an elaborate storm shelter in the field behind his family's home. Shannon, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a psychologically imbalanced neighbor in Revolutionary Road (2009), has become known for his unhinged characters (see especially his lacerating portrayal as a schizophrenic in William Friedkin's Bug), thus his casting here might seem a bit too obvious. I would argue, however, that the brilliance of Shannon's performance is not in the inevitable sweaty, wild-eyed moment of mental breakdown, but rather in the way he conveys the character's gnawing fear of that breakdown and the sadness that overwhelms him as he compulsively goes about work that he knows may very well be destroying him and his family.
Shannon's performance is matched with equal intensity and nuance by writer/director Jeff Nichols's filmmaking. Nichols, whose feature debut, Shotgun Stories (2007), also starred Shannon, displays a Roman Polanski-like understanding of the manner in which small, naturalistic details can add up to an overwhelming sense of anxiety and horror (not surprisingly, the film plays like a male twist on Rosemary's Baby, and we keep waiting for the "This is no dream! This is really happening!" moment). The film opens with one of Curtis's dreams, where he is standing on his driveway looking out at an enormous, menacing sky that soon begins to spit out yellow, oily rain. The nightmarish mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar immediately establishes the film's sense of nature as an uncanny beast that is all around us and imminently capable of destroying us. The heartland setting, with its vast, open skies that often feel like a gaping mouth ready to swallow up the tiny characters, plays its own role, relentlessly intensifying the sense of our own insignificance in the face of genuine natural threat. If the world wanted to consume us, it could in a second.
Nichols moves the story forward with a deliberate rhythm that emphasizes the small details of the everyday working world and gradually shapes them into a clear portrait of what might be lost if Curtis gives in to his visions. We see him interacting with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a mother of solid faith and patience who cares for their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who was born deaf and needs expensive surgery for cochlear implants. Curtis works as a crew chief for a sand-mining company and spends most of his day in a hard hat out in the field with Dewart (Shea Whigham), his co-worker and best friend who not-so-secretly envies Curtis's seemingly normal, stable life. "You got good life," Dewart tells him at one point, and we recognize that Curtis does have a good life--the proverbial American dream, in fact, if demonstrably modest in its contours and always in danger of being undermined by external forces.
What Dewart doesn't know, of course, is that Curtis is haunted by dreams that some kind of storm is coming and that those dreams, which Curtis takes for visions of the future, are shaping his behavior. When Curtis asks Dewart to help him dig out his back field in order to extend his storm shelter, he finds it curious, but doesn't press him on it, even though he realizes that Curtis is sinking a small fortune into a seemingly ridiculous venture and also breaking the law by "borrowing" the company's back hoe. Although, unlike Dewart, we see inside Curtis's mind in sharing his dreams, we are in many ways aligned with the characters around him, helplessly watching as he digs what appears to be his own proverbial grave in obsessively building his storm shelter, an activity that takes over his life emotionally and financially (one of the film's most impressive conceits is the manner in which Nichols melds Curtis's possibly unhinged paranoia with real-life fears about financial ruin, the need for subsidized health care, and the manner in which tightly knit communities can be both a blessing and a curse). Samantha, ever the understanding and flexible wife, does everything she can to accommodate her husband, but even she ultimately has her own breaking point, and we begin to wonder if this fool's errand will end up costing Curtis everything.
And therein lies the film's tragedy and its emotional resonance. With downcast eyes set in that sharply etched, Easter-Island-statue-like face, Shannon makes it painfully clear that Curtis is all too aware of the possible absurdity of his actions, yet he is powerless to stop himself. He is, like the other characters, fundamentally helpless in the face of his growing obsession, and we sense with absolute recognition the anguish and, more specifically, embarrassment he feels regarding his predicament (one of the film's most moving moments is his response to waking up in the morning and realizing that his nightmare has caused him to wet the bed). In this regard, it is to his advantage, rather than disadvantage, that Shannon has already played so many deranged characters because we come in expecting the standard-issue, wild-eyed routine, but instead get something that is more sad than unnerving: a man whose visions of the end of humankind may very well be nothing more than the self-fulfilling prophecy of his own personal destruction.
Copyright 2011 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Sony Pictures Classics
Overall Rating: (4)
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