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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 Brett Gallman

"The world ends not with a bang but a whimper. Maybe."
3 stars

“Take Shelter” feels like a “Twilight Zone” episode in denial. I’m probably not the first to compare the film to Rod Serling’s landmark anthology show, especially since it shares a lot of similarities with an episode that’s aptly titled “The Shelter.” Besides that, it’s almost become trite to say something feels like a feature length story that could have been featured on the show. However, that’s not the part that bothers me about Jeff Nichols’s latest film (one could pick many worse sources to pilfer from); instead, it’s that denial that causes it to flounder a bit, as if the writer/director was unable to commit to the story’s underlying eeriness in favor of a cheap climactic rug pull (which, of course, will only beg more comparisons to “The Twilight Zone”).

Like the protagonist in “The Shelter,“ Curtis Laforche (Michael Shannon) is convinced of an impending apocalypse; in this case, his nightmarish visions of a destructive lightning storm render him paranoid as he begins to alienate his wife (Jessica Chastain) and friends. As his own mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her 30s, he begins to worry that he has inherited the disease; however, he can’t shake his nightly dreams and commits to erecting an impenetrable storm shelter in his backyard, much to the dismay of those around him.

In short, “Take Shelter” amounts to audiences watching Michael Shannon having nightmares and losing his mind for nearly two hours, which is one of the film’s biggest missteps--it feels a bit too long, as some scenes linger a bit longer than they should. It’s a slow burn, and that approach sometimes works to the film’s benefit, as it carries a brooding intensity that I enjoyed. Some scenes, such as one of the big, emotional blow-off scenes where the weight of all the sideways glances of those around Curtis become too much for him to bear, are wound spectacularly tight and absolutely work.

But other moments are sluggish and tedious; at some point (probably after witnessing Curtis’s third or fourth weird dream), I found myself waiting for a little narrative momentum that never quite showed up. It probably doesn’t help that many of the film’s plot points are telegraphed; for example, Curtis and his wife have a deaf daughter who is set up to undergo an operation that will restore her hearing. Curtis’s developing paranoia, however, leaves him screwing up at work, so you can see it coming when the script heads off to mine our sympathies over working-class healthcare struggles.

That sympathy is earned, though, thanks to the central performances from Shannon and Chastain. Both are powerfully quiet, with the former especially exhibiting a heartland modesty (the film is situated in Ohio, so we’re practically swimming in blue collars). His turn is obviously marked by tragedy, as we’re essentially seeing a man at war with his own mind; most disconcerting is his keen awareness of what’s happening to him, and we read that struggle on the pained expression that seems to be permanently affixed to his face. We’re told early on (via some sloppy bit of dialogue) that Curtis is a good guy, and that’s never in doubt thanks to Shannon; in fact, much of the film’s tension is built upon him slowly losing that dignity.

One of the film’s more effective moments sees him becoming frigid towards his wife, who is the other tragic victim of all of this. Chastain (who has seemingly lived on multiplex screens this year) juggles understanding, resentment, and anger with ease, so much so that she becomes almost as compelling to watch. Going crazy is obviously hard, but being the loved one dealing with that fallout may be even more difficult.

And all of this is what makes “Take Shelter” rather fascinating when it wants to be. Tackling schizophrenia in such an authentic fashion reveals the frightening dimension of losing grip on reality, even if Nichols does often rely on some surreal, even biblical imagery involving locusts and gathering storms. The eeriness here is an unsettling undercurrent that captures the very realistic heartbreak buried deep in the story. When it found its way to the center, I found myself invested in this family’s attempt to cope with the disease tearing away at Curtis’s brain, and it finds an intense crescendo in a powerfully scored sequence that unfolds in the fury of a storm that may or may not be the one Curtis has prophesized.

Had “Take Shelter” ended there, it would have been a fine exploration of madness, even with some of its narrative fat. However, Nichols can’t resist tacking on a coda that trades it all in for a hollow twist, at least if you read it literally (which I do, given Nichol’s objective lensing of the scene). Even if you take it more figuratively, the ambiguity is a bit maddening in its incongruence with the rest of the film. To earn such an ending, this really should be more of a mind bender that forces viewers to question the reality of what they’ve been watching the entire time (which would force us to identify with the protagonist rather than feel sympathy for him from the outside). Asking that at the zero hour in this context isn’t thought provoking (though I suspect it’ll ignite a lot of discussion); instead, it seems a bit gratuitous and false.

That brings us back to that denial of its “Twilight Zone” undertones that seem to only subtly rumble in the distance before finally roaring forth at the last minute. While there is something a little spooky about much of “Take Shelter,” it never feels creepy enough to transport us to anywhere ethereal like it seemingly desires to do in the end. It would have been better off taking refuge in its psychological and dramatic excursion into insanity instead.

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originally posted: 11/17/11 08:47:11
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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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