Monday, November 07, 2011

Take Shelter

TAKE SHELTER (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Where is the line that separates a prophet from a madman?  For Curtis (Michael Shannon) in TAKE SHELTER, his vivid delusions and hallucinations of an impending storm have him struggling to ascertain if he is foreseeing danger or losing his mind.  Now in his mid-30s, the Elyria, Ohio construction worker is at the age when his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  While he takes steps to address the potential onset of mental illness, Curtis doesn’t discount his dreams either.

Curtis doesn’t want to worry his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) with the burden of what he is seeing, not when she already has their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) to care for and a house to keep.  For a time his actions don’t suggest anything significant is wrong, but she can’t overlook his gradually strange behavior and fixation on the backyard storm shelter.

For a husband and a father the needs to provide and protect are paramount.  Curtis’s visions motivate him to fulfill the role he has been capably serving, but the nightmares also put at risk his ability to be in the family.  If he is experiencing an emotional disorder’s blossoming, then he is speeding toward the ruination he is working so hard to prevent.

In an outstanding performance, Shannon portrays this conflict with great sensitivity and control.  He’s played his share of characters with some faulty wiring, but this role is more down to earth than the colorfully disturbed individuals he’s been in BUG, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE.  In TAKE SHELTER Shannon conveys the quiet torment that prods Curtis’s worst fears while he does his damnedest to keep it together for those he loves. When the pressure can no longer be contained, the slow boil of a performance explodes in a spectacular scene at a Lions Club fish fry in which he releases what are either the ravings of an ill person or the impassioned warning of someone who spots trouble on the horizon.

TAKE SHELTER writer-director Jeff Nichols takes great care in detailing Curtis’s journey and surrounding him with concerned loved ones.  Chastain’s deeply empathetic work displays the anguish that a spouse goes through in supporting a partner who may not be well.  In his single scene Ray McKinnon makes an impression as Curtis’s older brother Kyle.  His visit to Curtis’s home and their subsequent conversation tiptoes around the main subject, as men will often do, but the message Kyle sends and what he observes shows genuine worry.

Nichols keeps the narrative taut by not tipping off whether the protagonist is rational or not until the very end, although the answer may be more oblique than it appears. What matters is following the progression of Curtis’s mental dilemma and feeling the strain that comes from agonizing over a man’s capacity to do right by his family.

Grade: A

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