[11 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all about fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of an impending disaster. Fear of not being prepared and fear that no one will understand your sudden switch into self-preservation. Even without the threat visible or the possibility evident, it’s the fear that eats away at you. It turns dreams into horrific night terrors and friends into fragile enemies. For Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), it’s all so obvious - an unusual storm is coming, one that will wipe out everything we know, and only he has the ability to protect his family. Defying explanation and risking being labeled a nut job by those closest to him (and we soon learn, with good reason), he will do whatever it takes because of the fear. Oddly enough, this blue collar prophet never really once considers the most important fear of all - the fear of being wrong.
In his stellar suspense film Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols spends two hours examining the apparent mental breakdown of his hard working Joe. With a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at his age - 35 - Curtis is more than a little confused. The visions he is having are real - swarms of angry birds, raindrops that resemble unused motor oil, crazed people attacking his child, vicious animals attacking him - but he is afraid to confide in his wife (Jessica Chastain) or his pals at work. They will just think him another victim of the family’s crackpot legacy and dismiss his warnings outright. As they grow in intensity and familiarity however, Curtis takes to building onto the old tornado shelter in the backyard. He is hoping to survive…either the upcoming storm, or the maelstrom brewing in his mind.
With its languid pace and promise of a last act payoff, Take Shelter becomes an exercise in extended dread. We are instantly invested in Curtis’ issue, willing follow as he become more and more misguided, and then pray that all the handwringing and personal pain lead to something legitimate. Luckily, it does, but there is more to this movie that discovering just what our hero is haunted by. Shannon is superb as the man haunted by Apocalyptic visions, a percolating performance that builds to a believable breaking point. We keep waiting for the moment when Curtis will pop, when his fire and brimstone omens will lead to a violent outburst or a shouting match. There is a pivotal scene where things come to a head, but for the most part, Shannon suffers in silence and we willingly watch as he twists the sorrow inward.
In fact, one could easily argue that Take Shelter is more about the process of letting determination lead to obsession than some crazy guy frightened by the possible end of the world. Shannon’s Curtis is too complex to be a basic loon. He has 25 years of history to plague any possible solution. His mother, played well in a small cameo by Kathy Baker, has been saddled with mental illness for almost as long as he’s been alive and he recognizes the notions of heredity and lineage. He doesn’t want to become like her, but the things that are happening to him presently seem to indicate a possible link. Of course, the opposite view is even more disturbing. What is this unusual “storm” that is coming, and why will it wipe everyone out? Better still, couldn’t Curtis express his concern in a more positive way? Perhaps if he simply spoke up, shared his misgivings with those around him, he wouldn’t be so mistrusted…or melancholy.
But then again, Take Shelter is not about the open minded or the altruistic. The people we meet, the friends and acquaintances surrounding the LaForche clan are a callous bunch. Curtis’ older brother can’t bring himself to visit his ailing mother, but will definitely call out his younger sibling when he starts acting strange. A drunken coworker who goofs off more than he contributes suddenly turns company man the minute Curtis’ paranoia claims him. All throughout, people look past his mousy wife Samantha to give our lead a look of suspicion. Curtis is not blameless, but his actions are based in a real feeling, like faith only without the hope of an afterlife. This is a man driven to protect the people he loves. If no one else gets it, it’s there loss…and from all portents, it will be.
For his part, Nichols understands showmanship. He delivers on the foreboding and introduces us to possibilities that send the imagination into overdrive. In Curtis’ visions, birds do a demonic dance in the skies…before crashing to the ground, lifeless. Ominous clouds produce evil ripples of lightning while a night sky is painted with same. Even the surrounding citizenry starts acting like the cast of Dawn of the Dead, their dark silhouettes and aggressive actions suggesting something unholy and not of this Earth. There’s even a sequence inside a shadow filled living room that remains one of 2011 most effective. If all we cared about was mood and atmosphere, Take Shelter would win hands down. It’s got both to spare.
But it’s because we sympathize with Curtis, can see the pain in his wife’s disbelieving eyes, that this movie leaves its mark. Even if they didn’t have the daily burden of a deaf daughter, this couple would arouse our sympathy. They appear committed and yet driven by different desires, looking at life in ways that may not always mesh but definitely determine their family roles. That he wants nothing to happen to this, and that he’s willing to go to such antisocial extremes to achieve this is Take Shelter‘s greatest enigma. We don’t want Curtis to have spent this story in vain, but at the same time, what he’s suggesting sends shivers right up your spine. In a perfect case of “damned cause you do and really damned if you don’t” our hero becomes a kind of introverted Messiah. Curtis has seen the light, and what it promises to bring will change the course of everything. Everything.
As a result, Take Shelter becomes one of this year’s best, a thoroughly engaging work of wild eyed suspicion and full force fear. Curtis does what he does because he is afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t. We know he could be crazy, but if he’s not…Somehow, the truth may be too frightening to handle.