Take Shelter (Nichols, 2011)
It seems after months of waiting, 2011 is starting to get real. Yes, there have been a number of great films released so far this year (specifically I think of The Tree of Life, Drive, and Jane Eyre), but now that I'm looking ahead and making a schedule of films I must see I am almost overwhelmed with options. Take Shelter, the new film from Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols, has the type of pedigree that I get all flustered about, so when I saw it was opening at my local theater I became giddy with anticipation to dive in to the film. Knowling little about the movie I was simply hoping to revisit the domestic sphere that Nichols presented so well in his debut feature. Little did I know that I was in for so much more.
Take Shelter is basically about Curtis, played by a delightfully subdued yet still super creepy Michael Shannon, as he confronts night terrors that indicate the coming of a massive storm. He's a working class family man, and the film makes it abundantly clear throughout the two hours of run time that he always acts in the best interest of his family. This aspect becomes most notable when, frightened by his nightmares, Curtis decides to put his family in financial jeopardy by building a state of the art storm shelter where they can retreat when(/if?) this storm ever arrives. By the way, he does all this without telling his wife (Jessica Chastain) and knowing full well that his daughter (Tova Stewart) needs surgery in order to help restore her hearing. Plus these nightmare may not be real because his family has a history of paranoid schizophrenia. Drama!
And yes, drama does abound in this film. In Nichols's style a good portion of the film is spent slowly building up these characters, and his always steady camera wonderfully captures all of life's small occurrences between tense dream sequences that, according to lauded critic Richard Thorne, work to create a sense of psychological terror and uncertainty that permeates throughout the film. At times the pacing may seem a bit too slow for some people, but even in the slower scenes we are learning about Curtis's motivation and setting up events that pay off in huge ways (one major confrontation in particular) as the film progresses. Of course the film could also be undone by having the central relationship feel inauthentic. Placing Chastain, a highly personable and emotive actress, alongside Shannon, a much more nuanced and stoic presence, could produce disastrous results, but the two contrast each other perfectly, in a thematic sense, while still selling the lovers's ties that hold them together.
This film is difficult to discuss without spoilers since much of the personal value I derive from writing comes from processing themes. However, instead of directly referring to what happens I can praise the film for being wonderfully open to multiple interpretations. One trendy line of thinking going on right now is to read the movie as an examination of the economic crisis that weighs down upon America right now. While watching I was struck by how jarring many scenes were that dealt with both the insurance industry - including one where Curtis is confronted with dealing with his co-pay - and credit card institutions. I mean, a character warns Curtis to be careful of credit cards because they will eat you alive. Not necessarily profound statements, and I don't find them to be integrated all that well in to the film itself, but it's a legitimate reading that is supported from the very start of the film. However, I also read the movie as a meditation on the inevitability of death and the reaffirmation of familial connections, which is very much in line with Nichols's past work. These are only two readings that I offer up here, but I can think of many more that exist. And I hope people watch this film and generate more and more of those readings instead of settling on one and remaining complacent.Wolfgang Iser would have a field day with this film!
In many ways Take Shelter is not only an example of all I look for in film, but more specifically all I want when experiencing art and culture. I had an emotional reaction to certain scenes, but it was not simply about my emotion. At one time I felt emotion interacting with my mind, creating a sense of fulfillment that I have achieved only a select few times with film this year. At first I was appreciating the film for its technical prowess, but almost suddenly I was gripped by Curtis's struggles, and then I started contemplating the larger statements the film seemed to be making to me. But it wasn't until that final sequence, that ultimate credit role, that I found myself smiling. The feeling was magical. And we all just want to smile, don't we?
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© 2011 Richard James Thorne