Monday, January 30, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

It is basic human nature for us to worry about things that are beyond our control. That universal truth has only become more relevant since the late 2000s, when the economic recession took hold, depleting the finances of families ranging from the lower class of society to the upper middle class. Left with very little wiggle room financially, families live in fear that just one tiny misstep could bring about their doom. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, which he wrote and directed, explores that sense of anxiety that has befallen families across the globe.

Take Shelter takes place in a small town in Ohio, surrounding a small family comprised of Curtis (Michael Shannon), Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is hearing impaired. The family falls into the "middle class" category, as Curtis makes a sound living in construction, using his paycheck to support his family. However, though they live comfortably, in a nice house with plenty of land in a small suburban town, they still rely on that paycheck to maintain their lifestyle. It also doesn't help that Hannah's medical bills are mounting, and not to mention that the family plans to have a cochlear implant procedure conducted to restore her hearing -- which will not come cheap.

As if things aren't troubling enough for Curtis, he suddenly finds himself plagued with apocalyptic dreams while he sleeps. At first they begin subtly; during one dream, a dog attacks him, the next, a stranger kidnaps his daughter. But then he also begins having visions. Often pondering at the sky, he sees large bolts of lightning, accompanied by deathly black clouds and giant flocks of a birds.

Michael Shannon gripping Tova Stewart, who
plays his daughter in Take Shelter.
Nichols uses many wide angle shots, capturing the sky, the trees, and the grassy fields, and at the same time making Curtis look minuscule in comparison. The shots reinforce the fear that lingers in Curtis' mind; that he is a small man held at mercy to the forces of nature.

It is also made known that Curtis has a history of mental illness in his family tree, as we learn that his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 30, and was placed in assisted living. Because of this, Curtis is inclined to seek outside help for his hallucinations.

Throughout the film, the apocalyptic visions seem very literal. Conveyed with dark clouds, heavy rain and loud roars of thunder, it gives us the impression that Curtis fears that a world-ending storm may be on the horizon. He can be often heard throughout the film uttering the words, "A storm is coming," and even responds by building an underground storm shelter in his backyard.

But while these ominous forebodings of an earth-shattering storm surface in his mind, more human, tangible problems begin to arise. Curtis' ever increasing paranoia begin to bring about a schism in his marriage, his work performance and even his sanity. These problems make the viewer rethink what -- or even who -- Curtis should really be protecting his family against.

Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon
The film is highlighted with the brilliant, subtle performance of Shannon, coupled with a more forceful and dramatic performance by Chastain. As Curtis' fears worsen, tensions and emotions fly, demanding a lot from both actors, which they deliver with ease. That Shannon got so little recognition for this performance is certainly a little puzzling.

 Jeff Nichols is a directorial wunderkind of sorts, delivering his second film at age 33 after 2007's Shotgun Stories, which also starred Shannon. At a relatively young age, his film tackles very poignant and relevant themes that very much apply to everyday families who have felt both the mental and physical effects of the economic recession. His visuals of menacing clouds, ferocious storms and bolts of lightning  are also quite stunning.

At one point during Take Shelter, as Curtis stares at a giant thunderbolt tearing through the night sky, he asks aloud -- without actually expecting an answer -- "Is anyone seeing this?" Whether anyone else sees it or not is irrelevant, because in Curtis' mind, it's here. The real question, however, is whether Curtis is actually protecting his family from the storm, or causing it himself.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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