Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 01, 2011 12:14 pm 
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Prophetic paranoia

Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, about a construction worker in small town Ohio who begins having terrible dreams that make him think he's crazy but that he also suspects may be true, seems like a simple genre movie at first, but the writing, direction and acting mark it out as something special and memorable. A key element in the success is Michael Shannon, who plays Curtis LaFourche, the main character. At first Shannon, who has made a specialty of wigged-out characters, might seem a too obvious choice. But Shannon is a fantastic actor and was in Nichol's first film, Shotgun Stories. How could the director have access to Shannon and not use him? In the event he is perfect, and Curtis one of his richest and most sympathetic roles. And this may turn out to be one of this year's best American movies, because it's not only good but touches a nerve. As Nichols says in an interview, "When I was thinking about the concept of making a kind of hybrid genre-art film, I was searching for a universal idea or thought and it felt like out in the world there was this very palpable sense of anxiety and fear." Disaster is on our minds. You might say we all have bad dreams. Sometimes it's right to be paranoid and this movie neatly plays with that possibility.

Curtis is a decent, ordinary guy. He lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their little daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is hearing impaired. He's a good worker, he's always kept up his payments. He loves his wife and Hannah. The dreams begin with dark, ominous storms with a rainfall of heavy oily droplets, and then the storm causes things and people around him to become agitated and begin to attack him. There are also daytime hallucinations of menacing skies, some of which happen at work where Curtis is with his best friend and coworker Dewart (Shea Whigham) who like Curtis is a plainspoken but inarticulate working man. The trouble is, Curtis won't tell anybody. But sometimes an inflicted pain from the dream lasts all day or he becomes physically ill, like the sick-in-the-world Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes' Safe. And when he wets the bed during a particularly terrifying dream and has barely slept for four days, he goes to see the family doctor (Ken Strunk), who in some kind of inside joke, is called Dr. Shannon.

Curtin has begun to think he may be going crazy -- his own mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her mid-thirties. He seeks help, though at first not so energetically. But he also begins to build a tornado shelter in his back yard. A true aspect of the story is that one can know one's delusional but still be ruled by the delusions. The shelter project brings on personal disaster. Times are tough -- another aspect of the story that is timely -- and when Curtis takes out a bank loan on his house to pay for the cost of the shelter, that's only the beginning of the big risks involved. Later there is a falling out with Dewart, who comes to seem too close. Curtis can't talk to anybody close about what's going on, though he sees a cut rate counsellor and visits his schizophrenic mother, who lives in assisted care. Dr. Shannon recommends a psychiatrist in Columbus but that seems too far and too expensive.

CGI plays a role in the film, because we see whatever Curtis sees, which plays into our sense that it could be real. When the personal and financial troubles come, these help to reinforce our sense that Curtis is an ordinary guy, one of us. It's essential to maintain that sense to the end, even when he finishes the shelter and buys gas masks and an oxygen tank for Hannah because child gas masks are not available; even when Curtis has a fight and a wild outburst at the Lion's Club dinner. Jessica Chastain showed in Tree of Life and even in The Help that she can play the wife who is loving and faithful even under dire stress, and she is very good as Samantha, outraged, angry, but never shrill and determined to bargain and keep things going. She has a project of her own, besides her sewing, which she sells at a street fair every week. She has fought to get Curtis' medical coverage to pay for an implant for Hannah and though the couple are taking coaching in ASL, they want to be able to speak to Hannah and have her relate to other kids more. Hannah is well presented, except that she never gets to say anything independent, except in the penultimate big scene.

Shannon conveys a sense of Curtis' macho working class struggle to protect his family and his honor in a situation where he's far out of his depth. He's got a lot he thinks he must hide, but he's also simply a tightlipped, inarticulate guy. When Curtis does manage to talk to anybody it's a heroic effort.

The neatness of Nichols' screenplay is impressive. All his relationships, work, social, and intimate, feel true. It's rare for this kind of genre story to feel convincing in its scary moments and at the same time capture social and psychological realities this accurately. Nichols won a high rep for his skill at shooting a precise domestic drama in a small town setting in Shotgun Stories. Here he had a studio-level budget that helps with the special effects (even as they seem simply genre at first), and allowed for widescreen cinematography by Adam Stone that is just as striking as it should be. The music by David Wingo, while staying close to conventionality, is restrained and effective. The final scene may seem a bit simple and obvious, but it's well tuned to underline the theme's essential ambiguities and to be simultaneously tragic and hopeful.

Shannon got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Revoutionary Road in 2008. He blew me away in Tracy Letts' Bug on the New York stage in 2004. I saw him deliver a virtuoso one-man performance in Mistakes Were Made Off Broadway last year. The man can act, and is effective on stage and screen. He could get a Best Actor nomination now.

Take Shelter debuted at Sundance in January and was shown at Cannes, where it won the Critics Week Prize, and several other international festivals. It opened in limited US release September 30 (NY and LA). Sony Pictures Classics is the distributor. UK release is slated for November 25.

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