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Overall Rating

Awesome: 38.89%
Worth A Look: 5.56%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 5.56%

2 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Take Shelter
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by Rollie Schott

"A potent, brooding meditation on the death of the American dream."
5 stars

Michael Shannon is perhaps the most viscerally powerful actor in the movies. His eyes possess an unparalleled intensity. He has been long overdue for a leading role of this caliber, and longer overdue still for an Academy Award nomination. In Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter”, he offers a performance that may earn him one. Unlike his Hollywood peers, Shannon has the burdened look of an ordinary man. There is little romance in him. His brow is pressed into an awkward scowl, his smile only half-committed. He looks a little innocent, a little stupid, but more than anything he is vulnerable, illuminating deep wells of feeling. I can think of no other performer like him. Naturally, without exaggeration or theatrics, he draws on a ferocity that is uniquely his own, and has attracted more than a couple extraordinary filmmakers, from Sydney Lumet to Werner Herzog.

In “Take Shelter”, his second collaboration with Nichols, Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a construction worker in rural Ohio. The time is the present. The economy is a looming threat to the American family (and in more ways than one this film works as an allegory for these hard times). Curtis, as is told to him by his friend and coworker, “must be doing something right.” He has a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who, while deaf, is well behaved and happy. Curtis works a well-paying job in construction. He has enviable benefits. Word arrives that Hannah may qualify for a cochlear implant that would restore her hearing. Hard work seems to have brought the pieces into place.

But into this American dream befalls a premonition of foreboding. Curtis is haunted by dreams of a powerful and violent storm. The thunderhead clouds ascend formidably into the sky. The rain is thick and heavy, with the consistency of “fresh motor oil”. In the stillness that precedes the storm, flocks of crows fly in ominous, twisting, amorphous patterns, like ribbons in water. During the storms, pale, cloudy figures attack Curtis and his family. Soon, his own friends and wife appear to him, wet from the rain, a pale, empty wickedness in their eyes, and attack him as well. Curtis has a history of paranoid schizophrenia in his family. He isn’t stupid. He talks to local medical counselors about the possibility that he is experiencing symptoms of psychosis, but the grip of his visions is overwhelming, and he is compelled to protect his family from the threat of the storm. He embarks on the expensive and reckless task of building out the tornado shelter in his backyard, while rumors of his manic behavior percolate through the town. His wife, who must be among the strongest women I’ve ever seen in the movies, navigates a flood of fear and confusion with stoic loyalty and compassion, doing all that she can to hold her family together.

Nichols captures this descent with an intimate urgency. He makes subtle use of low horizons, casually directing our gaze upward, oppressing us with skies. He uses jarring edits that clearly define Curtis’s dreams from his wakefulness early on, but then slowly and confidently draws us into his paranoia by casually blurring those lines. And pay attention to his tactful use of perspective shots. Often we find him showing a character looking at something. Where our innate cinematic instinct tells us we should expect a reverse shot to follow, revealing what that character is looking at, Nichols goes elsewhere, elevating tension. This technique upsets our understanding of what is and is not a delusion. And pay attention to how often, when Curtis claims to see things while he’s awake, that the people around him never acknowledge him, which in turn denies us the compensation of having Curtis’s visions openly discredited. This is splendid film making.

This film is a thriller, yes, but it is also a thoughtful metaphor for the American economic recession, and not timidly so, either. Money is tight for the LaForche family but, as I mentioned, Curtis’s benefits are very good, and it is made very clear how much the family depends on those benefits for support. There is a scene in a bank, as Curtis attempts to take out a loan to expand his storm shelter, when his banker comments briefly on the state of America’s loan crisis. When Curtis’s obsessions threaten his employment, the consequences are made excruciatingly clear. When he roars, “There’s a storm comin’!” at a local community center luncheon, his words are infused with deep and multiple meanings.

I fear that in my effort to illustrate the allegorical brilliance of “Take Shelter” I have painted it as a vapid and wearisome intellectual bore. This is not the case. It is above all a frightening thriller, and I should make an effort to avoid underselling the film’s presentation of schizophrenia. Nichols preys on our fear that our own perception, our own understanding of reality, may come to be unreliable. He asks us what we have left when we cannot trust our senses. That he is able to transform this fear into something so topical is really a bit of a triumph.

“Take Shelter” takes a very idealistic image of the American middle class and threatens it with forces from above, far beyond their control. It is, in so many ways, a film for the 99%. It suggests that a way of life is coming to an end, that comfort and stability will be upended, that working hard and saving money will no longer protect us. It is a brutal evocation of unease, a tragic portrait of a strong family under extraordinary duress, and it is one of the best films of the year.

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originally posted: 11/21/11 08:14:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/01/13 mr.mike It reminded me of "The Last Wave". 3.5 stars 3 stars
11/12/12 Flipsider Good movie; but ruined by an awful final scene. 1 stars
4/19/12 ALICE good acting but very slow 3 stars
4/01/12 bert kaplan great acting yes, but ponderous 3 stars
2/16/12 J Markus Great drama, Michael Shannon deserves an Oscar! 5 stars
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  DVD: 14-Feb-2012


  DVD: 14-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Jeff Nichols

Written by
  Jeff Nichols

  Michael Shannon
  Jessica Chastain
  Shea Whigham
  Katy Mixon
  Kathy Baker

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