Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Though he has only directed two films (Shotgun Stories in 2007 and his latest, Take Shelter), Jeff Nichols has already established himself as one of the most exciting directors in modern American cinema. His subtle yet explosive examinations of conflicted men trying to escape the pressures of their past are quietly yet deniably powerful ones that are imbued with an almost mythic sense of importance. He creates modern fables that feel as old as the world itself, and in his latest he creates a work of staggering vision, dread and fear that ranks amongst the best films of the year.

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a thirty-something husband and father who seems to have found his place in the world. He has good friends, a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain) and an adorable daughter whose deafness looks like it will be cured by cochlear implants paid for by the insurance provided by his stable job for a drilling company. Yet at night he is plagued by increasingly horrific dreams about an ominous storm that threatens to destroy himself and his family, and when he starts to see and hear things that no one else can, he starts to wonder whether or not he is about to succumb to the same schizophrenia that claim his mother when she was his age, or if he is having visions of an oncoming catastrophe. Plagued by these thoughts, he starts to improve and expand the storm shelter behind his house, but his obsession quickly starts to seem more dangerous and destructive than any storm could be.

Take Shelter is about as close to a perfect film as I have seen it quite some time, and when I say perfect, I'm not just talking about how good the film is, but how good everything about the film is. Every piece of the film fits perfectly together to serve the story that Jeff Nichols is trying to tell, and it is a holistic work that feels complete in a way that only visionary works do.

The best way to describe the film is to compare it to a slowly tightening knot. It starts off fairly loose and unfocused, showing Curtis and his family interacting with their friends, giving a sense of the world that they inhabit and what their lives are like, then slowly but surely tightens, with each successive scene building the tension and the sense of overwhelming dread that Curtis himself feels as his visions get worse and his grip on reality gets slippier.

Every element of the film is geared towards serving that very specific feeling of slowly building terror. The music starts out sparse and fractured, like a broken music box or a wind chime, then gradually rises to an unbearable crescendo as the film reaches its final act. The sound design in the film is calm to begin with, but becomes heightened and eerie the more that Curtis works on his shelter. Michael Shannon's performance is quiet and stoic, but as the story progresses cracks begin to appear in the surface, and the pragmatism that causes him to seek professional help for his hallucinations starts to be superceded by his certainty that something truly awful is going to happen. It all feels like it is heading towards some watershed moment, after which things will be irreparably changed.

Whilst it is a reductive summation of the film, since so much of its first hour and a half is by turns beautiful and funny and scary, Take Shelter is really all about its final twenty minutes, during which Shannon finally lets loose, the music becomes frenzied and the sound of the film becomes almost deafening. It feels like a complete work from someone who has a unique and defined vision of the world, and that vision is terrifying, albeit in a beautiful and lyrical way. Nichols shoots the emptiness of America better than almost anyone currently working, and he has a real understanding of the power of that landscape. The vistas on display in the film aren't showy, but they are awe-inspiring, and the sense of doom that comes with each of Curtis' nightmares comes as much from where they are set, in those wide open spaces where anything could happen, as the events themselves.

At the centre of the tumult is Michael Shannon, who continues to be one of the most compelling actors in the world. The key to his performance is the self-awareness that he gives Curtis: he knows that the things that he is seeing are a potential sign of mental illness, yet he also can't stop himself from endangering his family and his livelihood by doing the things that the voices in his head tell him to. Shannon has a wonderfully craggy, stoic face that is perfect for a father trying to hold things together, desperate to not give in and have to abandon his family the way that his mother left him, yet the notes of desperation and fear that Shannon lets slip are just enough to let us know that this man, as strong and proud as he is, is deathly afraid of the world around him.

There's little more that needs to be said about Take Shelter except that it is easily one of the best films of the year. Apart from some less than convincing effects, which can only be expected from a film that cost so little to make, it's an almost flawless, audacious and exhilarating work that firmly establishes Jeff Nichols as the next great American film-maker.

 Grade: A