Thursday 23 February 2012

Film Review | Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols

There's a storm coming. And not just any old whip of wind and water: the storm. The perfect storm. An unfathomable maelstrom of gale and tornado, thunder and lightning, with its unseeing sights set on home sweet home. For one family, it could mean the end of everything.

There's a storm coming. Curtis knows it. He knows he knows it. He's seen it, even... in dreams; smelt it and felt it in harrowing nightmares he's been having night after night, during which he loses everyone he loves. He envisions his beautiful wife Samantha lost to the storm, and then, worst of all, he watches it take his dear deaf daughter Hannah. And then he wakes.

Curtis will do anything and everything in his power to protect his family from the storm, but what storm is that, exactly? No-one else can even bring themselves to consider that there might be something coming, so when Curtis begins to build an expensive storm shelter in the back yard - risking his job, his home and the health insurance that's going to pay for the expensive surgery Hannah needs in the process - people start talking, and not in a nice way. Tongues wag, and soon the community rounds on Curtis, sure that he's lost his mind... like his mother, who was institutionalised in her 30s with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

This, Curtis realises, is a very real possibility. But he's still having the dreams, and they're as real as anything else in the quiet life he leads. He can't simply ignore them, can he? What if they're a warning he doesn't heed, and his wife and daughter are the price he'll have to pay for his arrogance?

Take Shelter could be a little sharper off the starting mark, sure, but I beg you: batten down the hatches and bear with it, because in every other respect it's an incredibly thoughtful thriller. Tense, gripping, and intelligent, Take Shelter is as much a meditation on mental illness as it is a film about survival. It is about a family holding onto one another for dear life as dear life takes them for an almighty ride, which they might not all see the end of.

A palpable and powerful sense that something's not quite right pervades Take Shelter from the first. Exactly what it is that's amiss takes a little long too come clear, as aforementioned, but from the moment Curtis starts to unravel on through to Take Shelter's unforgettable final frame, writer/director Jeff Nichols is in impeccable control of his narrative, and his characters. The story is spun slowly, but just so, meanwhile the husband and wife at its deceptively silent heart come into their own - whether towards or at odds with one another - to tremendous effect.

On a not unrelated note: both of the leads turn in truly bravura performances. As a man out of step with his sanity, whose mind and body have begun to rebel against him, Michael Shannon is intense, unselfconscious and brilliantly unreadable. You won't be able to look away as Curtis comes apart, nor indeed as Samantha calmly and then frantically tries to keep the fraying ends of her husband in some semblance of order. Jessica Chastain, for her part, spends perhaps a disproportionate amount of time preparing food, but her character's support of her husband through these hardships is the emotional core of the role. Her patience, her anxieties and her attempts to understand Curtis' break are not easy things to convey, but Chastain internalises her struggles incredibly. She's a perfect foil for an ideal character actor.

Without these powerful performances, Take Shelter would only have been a fraction of the film it is, but the leads are not the only reason it soars so. Writer/director Jeff Nichols cut his teeth on 2007's terrific Shotgun Stories - another Michael Shannon-starrer - and he carries over more than that movie's smouldering main man. His script is spare, and sure-footed; he has refined the relentlessness of his first film into a more manageable sense of the tense; and though Take Shelter's pacing is not without its own issues, it's certainly an improvement over the infrequent unevenness of Shotgun Stories. Jeff Nichols, I think, is a filmmaker to watch like a hawk.

Take Shelter would have been worthy of applause for its ineffably sensitive treatment of mental illness alone, but that idea of restraint, of the unspoken things we think, also parlays into the stunning central characters, and the gathering narrative. In the end, there's so much more to this movie than a man and some worrisome weather. That the Academy opted to overlook Take Shelter and its breathtaking array of talent so that the likes of War Horse and George Clooney could have a nomination is absolutely damning, to all involved in this latest shameful oversight.

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