Sunday, September 22, 2013

Take Shelter

2011. 120 min. Rated R and I really don't know why. No nudity, very little language, scary dream violence.
IMDB says... Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

The 73rd Virgin says... It’s taken me 6 weeks to slap this review together and I’m not sure I got it right, so it obviously got under my skin.

The tone is set early and never really changes. Curtis stands in his front yard and watches as storm clouds, that only flatlanders can appreciate, roll in. But as rain falls on his hand it looks like motor oil. But not on his face or shirt, significantly.

Curtis and Samantha live an idyllic middle class rural life in Ohio. He works for a drilling contractor; she sells handmade goods at her “booth” at the weekend flea market. They have a darling 3 or 4 year-old daughter who is deaf (as is the natural actress Tova Stewart). Their lives revolve around their neighbors and family and work - and his health insurance. With enough cajoling, it may pay for a cochlear implant for the girl.

Director/writer Jeff Nichols already shines here. The whole effect is affectation-less. These are not Spielberg-style garishly hyper-ordinary Californians sliding into extraordinary circumstances. These are not Norma Rae - style redeemed white trash. These are as close to genuinely ordinary as Hollywood can get. Despite the IMDB overview, this is not a prepper fantasy. Instead, it’s a slow-motion tragedy that combines media-fed obsession with economic instability and formless fears of environmental catastrophes with delicate family politics and abiding familial love.

Nichols has a neat grasp of the non-conversational way that old neighbors, friends, and spouses communicate. Here Curtis brings his work buddy Dewart home way too late after a night of beer. Dewart’s wife has seen it all. The boss’s quandary the next morning is equally well-observed.

Jessica Chastain as Samantha may be slightly too pretty, but her gaunt face could have wandered out of the Kentucky hills a generation or two back, and she is so natural that she could be your sister. These clips don’t really do her or Stewart justice. Kentucky native Michael Shannon as Curtis is playing in his own league. On first viewing his performance seems one-note, but as his sleep is further disrupted by ghastly dreams, as he slowly disengages, as his decision making and prioritizing skills decline, all natural ease exits his performance, and his ticks and facial tension increase incrementally. When Nichols wants to drive it home, he shoots Shannon from the front to accentuate his asymmetrical face and somewhat drifty right eye.

The cumulative effect of watching each scene and expecting the worst, based on every other movie you’ve ever watched, is that you begin to appreciate the tension and paranoia of the protagonist who manifests his condition in dream archetypes formed mostly by popular culture. It’s a very skillful way of sucking you into Curtis’s deteriorating state of mind.

Curtis begins to endure one horrible dream after another, waking up in worse condition every day. They always involve weather, often tornados – (been there myself) – sometimes strangers at the windows. Finally he decides to fix up the storm shelter in the back yard. Not a good sign. And it will become our visualization of Curtis’s increasing isolation and obsession.

The tragedy is compounded by watching this good reliable man with good common sense at war with himself. He knows that compulsively buying canned goods and gas masks and adding a room to the shelter is nuts and could cost him everything including his family, but he can’t help himself. He even methodically tries to self-diagnose.

Nichols again gives us the way people don’t talk, as Samantha discovers what he’s been up to, followed by perfectly artless life in his staging of one of those darkest dark nights of the married soul – sitting at the kitchen table – with exhausted stillness. These are the only two people in the world, but there is no romance.

We are 90 minutes into a very stately 2-hour movie – there may be one too many dreams – when Nichols finally lets all the built-up tension fly. In order to do something normal they go to a Lions Club supper and in a scene almost every reviewer mentions, Shannon gets in his wheelhouse. The body language of the extras is so convincing you wonder if they even knew what was supposed to happen.

And even a broken clock is right once in a while. There is an eyes-looking-through-your-fingers tension as we wait to see if Curtis can allow himself or his family to try normal again.

The final, final scene has caused a storm of spoilers and discussions on the web. If you care at all, avoid them. Nichols remains ambiguous about the intention. If for no other reason, it is brilliant just for Curtis’s momentary glance and Samantha’s almost imperceptible nod of her head, speaking volumes about their relationship. A closing shot of the back of Chastain’s red head as she gazes out on a landscape belongs in a museum for its color and composition alone.

If your family stayed up for hours figuring out Inception, then you may be up ‘til dawn discussing this ending. My best guess is that it’s an oddly positive manifestation of just how committed this little family is. I may have missed something. Hope I didn't give away too much. Ebert gave it his highest rating, Starland, 4 1/2 stars. Talk amongst yourselves.

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