Thursday, 29 September 2011

LFF 2011 Review : Take Shelter

“I’m afraid something might be coming, something not right. I can’t explain, I just need you to believe me.”

Both director Jeff Nichols’ second feature and his second collaboration with actor Michael Shannon, having worked together previously on his debut film, Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis, a caring father to his deaf daughter and loving husband living “a good life”, a worker at a construction quarry in the Mid-west. Opening with Curtis gazing out over an ink-coloured horizon, convinced that the mother of all storms is brewing, both literally and metaphorically, he soon begins experiencing vivid and terrifying nightmares; his dog attacking him in the yard, angry mobs smashing their way into his crashed car, dead birds falling from the sky; images that at first plague only his dreams but soon begin to bleed into his waking reality with crashes of thunder. Torn between the idea that he’s falling foul of the paranoid schizophrenia that led his mother to be hospitalised when he was a child and the need to safeguard his family against the possibility of his visions proving prophetic, Curtis has a Noah-like epiphany, taking out a risky loan against the better judgement of his bank manager and behind his wife’s back, to begin work constructing his folie de grandeur, a tornado shelter in the back yard.
Shannon has always been a magnetic screen presence, and here delivers perhaps his best performance yet; combining heartbreaking vulnerability with a dangerous instability. Nichols keeps the narrative’s perspective in the first person, instilling a mounting sense of dread and disturbance to proceedings as Curtis’ mental health begins to slowly deteriorate. Always integrating Curtis’ visions sequentially into the narrative, we’re never initially aware if we’re witnessing yet another startling vision, especially as he becomes more in thrall to the power of his delusions. Becoming entranced with images of local disasters on television, Curtis enlists the help of a work colleague to build his shelter, borrowing equipment from work on the sly with little concern for the financial implications of his actions, whilst his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) scrapes together the odd few dollars selling craftwork at a local boot sale to fund a much needed vacation.

Nichols keeps economic considerations at the forefront, reliant as Curtis is on the health insurance provided by his job to pay for his daughter’s upcoming cochlear implant surgery. The financial realities of being a working-class family in Middle America are well drawn; Samantha saving up a dollar at a time, Curtis’ encounter with his bank manager and the difficulties found in making any sort of claim, even with a strong health insurance policy, especially one so dependent on a fragile job, complete with a boss constantly monitoring his bottom line.
The widescreen photography by DoP Adam Stone is simultaneously beautiful and threatening, capturing a sky pregnant with a mounting sense of dread, the distant horizon for Curtis the birthplace of impending doom. Desperate to keep his escalating fears from his wife, Curtis takes out books on mental illness from the local library, completing the diagnostic quizzes at the back for the benefit of his counsellor, like a nervous school kid handing in his homework. Whilst the opening section sets-up his inwardly collapsing state of mind through its series of nightmarish visions, it’s the middle section of the film that proves most rewarding, eschewing the outward projections of his mental disintegration for a more insular battle for control over his delusions. If the climactic scenes inside the shelter lean towards ‘you can do it’ sentiment, those leading up to Curtis’ public meltdown are anything but; Shannon may be on towering form, but he’s ably supported by Chastain, grounding her character in a way she never could in The Tree of Life earlier this year.

Tonally, Take Shelter reminded me of David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983), which also dealt with a man fighting inner demons through visions of personal apocalypse, but it’s also the pervasive air of menace that both films share. Nichols has made a film that hauntingly captures the claustrophobic internal combustions of a schizophrenic personality, giving Michael Shannon a role that, with any justice, will see his name on many Best Actor shortlists come January.

Take Shelter – 2011 – USA – 120 mins – Dir : Jeff Nichols

Take Shelter screens at the London Film Festival on 21st & 23rd October and goes on general release on November 25th

Tickets for the London Film Festival screenings are available here

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