From R.P McMurphy to Travis Bickle, Patrick Batemen to Daniel Plainview, nothing beats watching a movie character slowly blur the lines between fiction and reality. That is, of course, assuming the character is written and portrayed properly. Far too many times have we seen a film characters’ impending insanity manifest itself into laughable obscurity.
Thankfully for us, Michael Shannon’s Curtis in Take Shelter not only feels authentic, but damn horrifying, too.
When we meet Curtis, he’s doing what he’ll soon find himself doing often: looking up at the sky with frightened puzzlement. When Curtis looks up, he doesn’t see what we see. He sees black clouds move like battle-ready soldiers, or tornado(es) slowly creep toward his home, or thousands of birds move with the majestic rhythm of ballet dancers; when Curtis looks up, he sees hell.
If only anyone else could.
Most of the time, these apocalyptic visions occupy Curtis’ dreams, which, in turn, cause him to act irrationally when he’s conscious. The house dog is chained outside, the understanding wife (Jessica Chastain) is neglected, the best friend (She Whigham) is shafted, and, as the title indicates, everything is set aside to make way for one big goddamn fallout shelter.
All of this, mind you, is merely plot exposition, and if you’ve seen director Jeff Nichols’ only other film, the exceptional Shotgun Stories (also starring Shannon), then you know that plot ain’t the half of it. Like that film, Take Shelter immerses its audience in the situation, the fear, the paranoia. The film makes you acutely aware of what is going on, and the inevitable danger that will stem from it.
We’re given hints as to why Curtis is acting the way he’s acting, but that’d be best not mentioned here. Instead of further describing what happens, our time would be better spent detailing why the film succeeds as fabulously as it does.
Michael Shannon, I have no hesitation stating, has managed to become one of the finest actors working in film (or television, as is evident in Boardwalk Empire). Shannon has always managed to steal scenes. Tigerland, Vanilla Sky, 8 Mile, World Trade Center, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, all contain excellent brief performances. And after achieving greatness in Revolutionary Road, he’s only continued to up the ante. Little-seen indies like Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Shotgun Stories and now Take Shelter, only further prove his apparent limitless depth. Take Shelter ranks among his finest performances, which is saying a whole hell of a lot.
I’d be really sick of writing about Jessica Chastain if it weren’t for the fact that she’s so damn good. Add her innocent, frustrated wife in Take Shelter to her stellar performances in The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt, and you’ve got the makings of a surefire star. This woman is going to be huge.
Be warned: Take Shelter is a moody film. It’s quiet and slow, except when it’s not. A peaceful afternoon can be just that, until you look up in the sky and see the world coming down on you. Rarely has madness looked as determined as it does here. A-