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Thursday 1 December 2011

Film Review: Take Shelter

Mental Health Awareness Month isn't until May, but it seems I'm getting a headstart with two posts on the subject in a row. Last week I made the case for The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky as the Saddest Book in the World, and over the weekend I finally caught Jeff Nichol's Take Shelter, a film with a similar bent I'd been hankering to see for months.

Nijinsky's book is non-fiction, of course, but Take Shelter handles its subject with enough sensitivity to deserve the comparison. It concerns a man named Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon), whose apocalyptic visions drive him both to build a tornado shelter in his backyard and question his family history of schizophrenia. Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by stories like this one is because I have known people suffering from mental illness, and I have tried to write my own fiction on the subject. Let me tell you, it's not so easy. What Take Shelter does right is show exactly how Curtis is trying to be sane. Rather than becoming too engrossed in his delusions, the narrative, the tension, and the empathy are all based on how he is trying to respond to his plight. We feel more invested in his personal dignity, his sense of duty to his family, and his fear, and we can separate these things from the symptoms of his illness. Writer/director Jeff Nichols deserves a lot of credit for keeping such careful control of potent material.

That said, it works as a movie too. This is one of those films where your teeth and back hurt by the end of it and you're still sorry it's over. The tension runs higher than any horror movie I've seen, but has more to do with dread and unease than spectacle. Part of it has to do with some disturbing contemporary resonances, though the writing is strong enough to work them in without compromising the narrative. In Curtis' visions, it rains motor oil; at one point he calls his psychiatrist while standing at the gas pump. Notice in the scene where he pulls over to watch lightning on the horizon, there is a Real Estate sign in the lower righthand corner. Even the soundtrack seems to echo Curtis' life - he has a deaf daughter, and the soundtrack is mainly made up of high, ringing tones muting the dialogue and effects.

Curtis is played by Michael Shannon, and this movie makes it official, he's my favourite actor. He's already played crazy people to the hilt in at least three other movies (his turn in Revolutionary Road got him an Oscar nomination), but he continues to find new inspiration in each role. His role in Bug, based on the play by Tracy Letts and filmed as a two-hander with Ashley Judd, first turned me onto him. But Bug is more of a claustrophobic mindfuck than a study of mental illness. I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog, but I have to say Michael Shannon's role in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is about the only good thing in the movie. Michael Shannon rises above the wooden dialogue and clunky scenes, a feat that even Willem Dafoe, Chloƫ Sevigny, and Udo Kier couldn't match (it's as if Herzog knew it and gave him all the plum lines - Shannon tells his pet flamingos "I know you're my eagles in drag"). If you want to see Shannon in some saner roles, I recommend his noirish turn in The Missing Person, or his performance in the lead role in Shotgun Stories, also by Jeff Nichols.

But enough about Michael Shannon - time to praise Jessica Chastain. She makes Curtis' wife Samantha more than a foil or voice of reason and gives her life of her own. Watching her move from furious to confused to genuinely worried in the course of one scene is heartbreaking. The filmmakers know it, too; the narrative is mostly framed around Curtis, but after he leaves the room in the aforementioned scene, notice how the camera lingers on Samantha just a few frames longer than necessary. It's a sly bit of editing that seals the emotional impact.

In researching for my own fiction, I've read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies in this vein. Even so, I can't think of another one that so effectively balances drama, sensitivity, and artful execution. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, so don't come complaining to me if you come out of the theatre anxious and bewildered. Sometimes, though, that's well worthwhile. 

Take Shelter Trailer: 

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