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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the most powerful of several family dramas this year (2011),
and the best husband-wife drama in many years. It's a film of uncommon
power and insight, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who shows us
the anxiety so many Americans are feeling in the wake of the financial
crisis and recession. Michael Shannon, an actor of extraordinary skill,
plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio family man who's managed to hang on to a
construction job with decent health care insurance. He's married to a
good woman, Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, who's dressed down
here as a small-town wife and mother. The pair have a modest home that
they share with their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) and dog,
Red. Hanna is deaf, needs an expensive operation, and fortunately
Curtis's health insurance will pay for it. This is a true picture of
American family life a good marriage, a good home, a good job with
insurance, all made possible by hard work and the values Americans have
long held dear. Still, money is tight: much is expected of Curtis at
work, and Samantha sells her hand-sewn crafts at the local swap meet to
make ends meet.
Curtis is content with the life he's built. And his best friend at work, Duart (Shia Whigham), tells him with envy: "You've got a good life, Curtis." We agree, until Curtis starts having a series of bad dreams that threaten everything he has. In the first of many dreams, or visions of impending doom as he thinks they are, a bad storm scares the family dog into viciously biting him. The next day, the pain is so real he builds an outdoor pen for him. This mystifies Samantha and Hanna because Red has always lived indoors and is quite docile. Curtis offers no explanation. He continues to dream of horrific storms, preceded by giant swarms of ominous blackbirds and sinister greasy rain. At first, he tries to hide this from everyone, including Samantha, because he suspects the onset of mental illness. He's just turned 35, the same age his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, from which she never recovered. He reads books on mental illness and seeks counseling at a community health center. He's entirely rational about taking steps to correct his problem, believing it's his duty as a husband and father. Still, he can't shake the feeling that a doomsday storm is coming, and he may not be mentally ill at all, but just prescient. If he's right, he must protect his family. Nothing is more important, and thus he embarks on enlarging a backyard storm shelter. But improving the shelter requires a bank loan he can ill afford, as well borrowing heavy construction equipment from work, which is prohibited. Curtis presses ahead, anyway, because he's convinced the apocalypse is coming. Curtis and Samantha live in a small town, and soon everyone is abuzz with gossip: what's wrong with Curtis? Samantha can't fathom it, but her love for her husband comes first. Chastain's performance here may seem small and subtle at first, but soon we see she's a partner of extraordinary emotional strength, and every thing she says and does rings true.
As Curtis's symptoms (or prescient visions) worsen, he's focused only on completing the storm shelter, but Samantha insists they have a normal family outing and attend a community barbecue. He doesn't want to go, but does so to please her. Circumstances are stacked against him, however, due to a misunderstanding with Duart, and he's pushed into a violent exchange that ends in him screaming at all in attendance that they have no idea what's coming. Samantha is heartbroken, not only because of this outburst but because she realizes her husband is in great pain. And then to our surprise, the tornado comes, and it's so big it could wipe the town off the map. Unlike many others, Curtis is prepared, and he takes his family into his well-built shelter that now has electricity, ventilation, food, cots, and plumbing. What transpires inside during the storm is frightening. The dramatics between husband and wife reach a near unbearable intensity. And this is where Shannon and Chastain shine, delivering performances that match the best couples in film history. Shannon, in particular, proves he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance (note how perfectly he handles the nuance and cadence of the most difficult scenes). This is the electrifying climax, but not the end. And when the end comes a few minutes later, it will stun you. It's the best ending of any film this year, and it's not a gimmick or a cop-out, as some mistakenly believe.
I was fortunate to attend a screening that included a Q&A with Michael Shannon. One audience member asked the question you will surely ask, and that audiences everywhere debated: "Is Curtis this, or is he that?" But avoid the trap of a literal interpretation because the meaning is not in that answer, which Shannon confirmed at the Q&A. Pay close attention to the subtle communication between Hanna, Curtis and Samantha in the final breathtaking scene that will put a chill on your spine. The meaning is in what they are experiencing, together, as a family, and it's an affirmation that they will survive. This film, along with Margin Call, are the two best movies of the year. And both go together, hand and glove, as cause and effect. The two films give us the big picture of America today: the history of the last 4 years, the events that dramatically changed our lives, and the stakes we now face. In one heartbreaking scene when Curtis finally confides to Samantha about his dreams, he tells her, "It's not just a dream, it's a feeling, that something is coming, something that's not right." This is a perfect metaphor for our anxious times.
Jeff Nichols made his writing and directing debut in 2008 with the
intense and very underseen Shotgun Stories, starring Michael Shannon in
a role more quiet and natural than audiences are used to seeing him
play. His follow-up Take Shelter, again starring Shannon, is proof that
an independent filmmaker can stick to his roots while still providing a
much larger stake. The background of the story is a domestic drama,
with a husband (Shannon) and wife (Jessica Chastain) in middle America
raising their deaf daughter, but it has one distinct twist; the husband
is plagued by apocalyptic visions that are bleeding over from his
dreams into the real life.
On paper it's a very interesting premise, but there are a thousand ways for it to go wrong when coming to the screen. Thankfully, someone as talented as Nichols is responsible for bringing it there and as a result this one doesn't miss a beat. As an exploration into the mind of a man dealing with a potential psychotic break, it's fascinating. At first I was a little critical about how far he shuts himself off from the world, not even telling his wife about his episodes, but as more about the character comes to our attention, we begin to understand and see that the world coming to an end might not be the thing he fears most. Shannon's Curtis is a hardworking family man who is trying to do right by his wife and daughter, but these visions are consuming him and so he goes to work on putting together a storm shelter in their backyard.
Nichols' script and Shannon's performance strike this impressive crisis within Curtis' mind; he sees these horrific visions of the end of days and he is caught in a turmoil over whether he has to protect his family from the coming storm...or from his own mind slipping away from sanity. It's a difficult mix to pull off, especially with an actor as physically intimidating as Shannon who faces the same problems as Jack Nicholson had when doing The Shining, where the actor is generally associated as someone with a loose grip on reality and could be hard to believe as someone gradually slipping from sanity.
Shannon has for years been an underrated actor as a result of this unique appearance, but this is the finest example yet of his natural ability to portray human characters. For most of the film he doesn't shout or portray Curtis as a psychotic man; he's a very real person dealing with an extraordinary situation. At first he is frightened by these visions, but gradually he starts to accept them as part of his daily routine and it's remarkable the way that Shannon plays this; no longer is he paranoid at every turn, but instead there's a weight on his shoulders that is slowly breaking him but he knows he can't fight. It's absolutely heartbreaking. Although there are some moments where everything becomes too much for him and he lets loose in grand and absolutely shattering fashion, there's a delicacy in his portrayal that makes you sympathize with him and desperately root for visions to not drive away everything he loves.
For a little while I was frustrated by how his wife Samantha was being portrayed; the very standard and thinly written nagging wife of a psychotic man. However around the halfway mark of the film there is a turn, which I won't spoil, that takes this dynamic into a whole new area; one that impressed me a great deal. Nichols fleshes out the character much more than I was anticipating from the early scenes, and Jessica Chastain plays her with a combination of exhaustion, concern and futile attempts at understanding that is strikingly honest.
There's a scene where Curtis asks Samantha if she's going to leave him, and instead of shouting at him or breaking down she just grabs him by the hand and tells him what they are going to do in order to get back on the right track. It's a soft moment, but it brought me to tears in it's beauty and honesty. Shannon and Chastain have a wonderfully chemistry together and it really gives the film a human touch that is able to make the stakes feel important. I cared deeply about these characters and as a result had my own emotional investment in what the outcome was going to be.
Then, of course, come the visions themselves. Again, there's potential here for Nichols to go the way of strict horror and make madhouse nightmares of epic proportions, but instead he plays everything a lot closer to the chest. He grounds each moment in realism and many times I found myself caught in a question of whether what was happening was really happening or not. There were only a few times where things started out clearly as a dream and the rest began the same as any other moment; an interesting and absorbing technique.
With the help of a hypnotizing score and a way of shooting that is very claustrophobic and tight on the actors, Nichols is able to bring us right into the mindset of this man and we feel every one of his fears. The ending is one that is sure to be hotly discussed by those who have seen the film, but personally I'm glad that Nichols ended it the way he did and I don't think that there could have been any other way to properly conclude this journey; it's a film that is sure to haunt those who are as hypnotized by it as I was and one that cements Jeff Nichols as one of the most promising American filmmakers today.
While this is not one of those movies you necessarily seek out, Jeff
Nichols' Take Shelter is one of those post-apocalyptic absurdist
psychological thrillers that you don't see coming.
Take Shelter is by far the most original case of paranoid schizophrenia I've ever seen filmed in the mid-west. While the problems Curtis (Michael Shannon) is having with his nightmares seems almost trivial, the length to which he is taking these problems is what is most unbelievable about the character of Take Shelter. And a nice touch to this mid-western drama is the interplay Nichols shoots between Curtis' realities, and his post-apocalyptic nightmares, because until you are used to Nichols' scheme you can never tell which is which.
Having nightmares, waking up, and talking about them with your loved ones is one thing, but to involve other people in your reactions to the nightmares you've been having is just plain psychotic, a nightmare in itself, and that is exactly what's happening in Take Shelter. Curtis doesn't discuss the nightmares he's been having with people. Instead, Curtis is making drastic decisions that directly affect the lives of his loved ones based on his own nightmares.
Also for those that have not ever seen Shannon act, Take Shelter is definitely a great place to start. The transition Shannon's character Curtis makes from traditional family man to a paranoid schizophrenic is immediate, yet casual, in a way that is almost funny. In Take Shelter, Shannon as Curtis, embodies all of the characteristics you could see in your neighbor organizing his garage, or working on his car at 2:30 in the morning. The writing of Curtis' character feels like it was written for Shannon.
The long-term decisions Curtis is making throughout Take Shelter are affecting his personal life, not only mentally, and physically but financially, and that is in fact the most horrifying quality of Take Shelter. Jessica Chastain as Samantha plays as a compliment to Curtis' self-destructive behavior. If it weren't for the nightmares provided by Nichols and Chastain's presence as Curtis' tolerant wife, then I'm afraid the character of Take Shelter would've lost all of its' credibility.
Where we do not want this beautiful marriage to be broken up by these post-apocalyptic visionary nightmares, we cannot help but to feel like we are just waiting for it to happen. If not the divorce of his marriage, at least the storm he's been seeing in his nightmares must. Wondering which out of these two things are going to happen in Take Shelter is the largest suspense factor being played throughout this picture.
Take Shelter? More like I wanna take a damn nap! I am in agreement for the most part with the rest of the reviews for this film about the acting being tolerable almost good during certain scenes. That being said the film itself is excruciatingly S L O W and there really is nothing that makes you latch onto or keep you wanting more. Is he a schizophrenic or is this some sort of existential parable or is this indeed a disaster film? Whatever the case I really don't care because its too damn long and boring. It would have been awesome to see some sort of ultimate battle between Curtis and his underling Dewart or his wife or...what the hell, the Devil hisself! Something to make this movie a bit more interesting.
This movie was a boring one, despite the fact that it was well done. The action moves at a snail pace and it involves very bland characters, and if it wasn't for the deaf daughter would have been even worse. The movie is not saved despite its decent acting, very good cinematography and a good dose of realism. As an art flick it may have pleased some but personally I found it extremely unsatisfying and I only watched it to the end because I was curios how will happen, which in one word would be: disappointing. It made me strongly feel that I wasted 2 hours of my time. I would admit, though, that I don't seek for art in a movie, I seek entertainment, excitement, an original idea, some remarkable achievements. Nothing of such and when it comes to the idea, to me it seemed and redoux and modern version of Noah story. I was fooled into watching by the praise ad overrating of this movie.
Driven by exceptional performance from Michael Shannon and ably
supported by Jessica Chastain....this is a psychological thriller but
at its heart its a character study which is only possible because of
the subtle direction of Jeff Nichols.
Its a slow burner...but by every minute that goes...we are still undecided regarding the sanity of the lead character...thats what keeps us hooked until the very end....and coming to the ending...boy..what an ending it is...the conclusion is satisfying for everyone...and one can look at it in two ways..sorry no spoilers...
Background score thats perfect elevates the movie further....
In my opinion, any movie that leaves you speechless during the movie...and makes you start thinking about it and discuss it after the credits roll...is a movie well made...and ultimately that is what we are after " A CONNECT" with the movie...
"he starts building an elaborate and expensive storm shelter in their
sensationalizing the story with this line. the storm shelter was neither elaborate nor that expensive.
He bought a shipping container to extend the existing storm shelter, I was expecting something more. The ending was a let down, I could not tell if it was a dream or real. It should have ended with his vindication by having he and his family leaving the shelter only to find devastation around them.
a good movie just the same
"Take Shelter" was described to me as a character-driven indie movie
with a twist ending, which immediately made me think of something like
"Another Earth". And most of the time (for me, at least) a
controversial ending is just something that torpedoes the rest of the
movie; a "gotcha" that undermines a movie's defining qualities and
retains notoriety based simply on that cheat. "Take Shelter" is the
Everything here rests on the shoulders of Michael Shannon. He embodies some pretty universal fears (the economy, job security, protecting one's family) while staring down the barrel of a family history of mental illness. Is there really a storm coming or is it just in his head? And that sounds like a low-grade plot gimmick, but it's the treatment thereof that's anything but. And that's key, because this is driven by character and his tremendous talent. We're never really sure what the answer is, but his suffering and descent are slow and painful.
And that's another thing: given the leisurely pacing, you'd think this would be a complete snore. But one thing this movie does very well (among others) is ratchet the dread. There's only one violent altercation in this story, but you always fear a quiet moment between Shannon's family - a meal at the table, a conversation in the bedroom - as they struggle to deal with this endurance test. I have nothing but good things to say about this film; gripping, unusually sensitive and speaks to the love and support of family.
And as for the ending; it's deliberately ambiguous, but seems to work no matter what you take from this. That's impressive.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is my personal interpretation. I know I am flying high, but this
what I felt at the end of the movie.
There is a father being afraid of a coming storm (economy recession?) and not being able to protect his own family. A big storm where rain is like oil: well oil is the disaster of the American economy since 60 years (oil wars/terrorism).
In the past year there has a growing number of American people who get more and more conscious of the coming recession of the American economy and the consequent insecurity of the American style of life. The first ones to be "under attack" era the working class. Check how many things this family is going through: losing job, losing welfare...
I don't really focus on what is real and what is fake in a movie: a movie is a story telling.
All the details aside, the movie as a whole is just mesmerizing.
I can understand why some people find it (really) boring. After all it's no roller-coaster ride. No, it's a totally different kind of thrill. It's that kind that captivates you so slowly that you don't realize it. In my opinion this is the best kind of suspense.
This mood has been achieved by outstanding acting performances, by an amazing cinematography, by a perfect fitting score, by an excellent direction and editing, by a fascinating story and basically by everything else I forgot to mention.
This movie is for everyone who enjoys movies with a slow, natural pace.
E.g. if you love the pace of Tarkovski, of "2001", "Fitzcarraldo" and "Paris,Texas", this movie is for you. If you prefer the Extended Editions of "Lord of the Rings" to the standard versions and the Redux version of "Apocalypse Now" to the original one - this movie is for you. If you rather lie on a hill and watch people and animals, when you're visiting a foreign country, instead of partying in the biggest club in town - this movie is for you.
This is the first movie by Jeff Nichols that I've watched and I'm really looking forward to watching everything else made by him.
Thank you, Jeff.
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