Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guest Post: Take Shelter (by Tyler Rubenfeld)


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(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)
Like Gena Rowlands, Klaus Kinski and, yes, even Nicolas Cage, Michael Shannon can carry an entire film simply by being unhinged. With wide-set eyes and a tight mouth that doesn’t so much speak as it secretes words, Shannon is one of the most magnetic character actors working today. It’s no surprise that he’s played crazy enough to pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination along the way, for Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.” It’s also no surprise that he’s been cast as the villain in Zack Snyder’s God-forsaken “Superman” reboot. These scenery-chewing parts are tailor-made for queer ducks like Shannon, and though they seem like easy paychecks, who can argue? Give him a complex and he’ll entertain.  
Unlike Nicolas Cage, however, Shannon is equally bewitching in “normal” parts. Call it the Ryan Gosling effect: his blank expression could be read hundreds of different ways. Even as the sanest one on screen, he’s imbued with the greatest mystique. This was achieved best in Jeff Nichols’ debut film “Shotgun Stories,” a startling piece of Southern Goth centered on the escalating feud between two sets of half brothers. Shannon’s taciturn Son Hayes, the eldest brother, snaps between responsible father and vengeance-fueled barbarian. Yet both facets are always present—he’s both an upstanding citizen caught in a violent uproar and a domesticated beast sipping beer on the porch. It’s one of the more believable portraits of revenge committed to film in recent memory. Nichols takes full advantage of Shannon’s ever adaptable poker-face, and though it would be a giddy thrill to watch him explode in a fit of Crispin Glover-style batshit insanity, he keeps the crazy at bay. It’s always there, simmering, but for “Shotgun Stories,” that’s enough.
Nichols’ sophomore effort, “Take Shelter,” amps up the energy. Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio family man and chief crewmember at a local drilling company. Like Son Hayes, Curtis’ biggest concern is providing for his family. His wife Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, takes care of their deaf daughter and sells her embroidery at a flea market. With this system, they’ve more or less reached financial stability.  They can afford their daughter’s cochlear implant and can start planning for a bigger house. 
(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)

As the film opens, Curtis stands in his yard observing a menacing set of storm clouds. It begins to rain a thick, amber liquid reminiscent of motor oil. These visions occur night after night, become increasingly frightening, with rabid groups of people and Curtis always scrambling to protect his daughter. He later explains that the weather is making people crazy; it’s a credit to Shannon’s performance that it took me days to realize that this is also the plot of “The Happening.”
Structured like a hurricane, “Take Shelter” eventually subsides on the night-after-night dream sequences, and the film enters an eerie calm. Though this portion contains some of the most chilling set pieces, it’s restrained, and it’s hard to scale back on the explicit horror without losing some steam. Audiences looking for more of the nightmares’ mainstream thrills (or more similarities to the canon of M. Night Shyamalan) may start to lose patience. Nichols has already established a base level of foreboding, and it’s here, in the stillness, Curtis stops his car on the side of the road—his wife and daughter asleep in the back—to observe soundless lightning, splayed in all directions. He says aloud, “Am I the only one seeing this?” It’s a real question: Curtis has a history of schizophrenia in his family, his mother developing it around his age.
Whether it’s impending doom or impending mania, it’s impending, and Curtis won’t rest until his family is safe. He breaks the bank on canned food and gas masks and a tornado shelter. The LaForche family budget flies off the handle as much as its patriarch, and it’s a cringe-worthy thing to witness. Though a common practice in Fassbinder films, it’s odd that, in today’s economy, few films use the act of overspending to heighten suspense. Monetary woes are always front and center, giving “Take Shelter” much more recession-era immediacy than the tacked-on relevance of “Up in the Air” or “The Company Men.” Curtis’ visions echo the country’s fears of climate change and terrorist attacks—violent upheavals that no man, no matter how good of a protector or provider he is to his family, can face. The cost of braving the storm is staggering. 
(Take Shelter/Sony Pictures Classics, 2011)

Curtis becomes such a tight-lipped, quivering mess that, when he does begin to explode, it’s downright terrifying. He literally becomes the proverbial soothsayer snarling about the apocalyptic flood that will wash everyone away. This is the batshit Michael Shannon that we’ve come to love and fear, and his transformation is a sight to behold. He’s matched by the justifiably ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who breathes life into the normally underwritten role of “the scared, patient wife.” Her options dwindle by the minute until she has no choice but to weather her husband’s storm.  Unfortunately, “Take Shelter” ends a few scenes after it should, and it’s hard to think of its frustrating ambiguity without thinking of the doggedly debated denouement of “Inception.” Though by no means a letdown, the ending merely hints at a less intriguing interpretation of the events.  Oh well. Narrative clumsiness aside, “Take Shelter” is one hell of a rush. Whether it’s the end of the world, the fall of the American empire, or the descent into madness, catastrophe will come with a hefty price tag. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
 Tyler Rubenfeld is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. He's on Facebook, and he tumbles: http://burnthemonfire.tumblr.com/