if i made lists, i have no doubt that come the end of the year jeff nichols' take shelter (2011) would be on it.
in the film, michael shannon play curtis laforche, an everyman living in small town ohio (though it could be anywhere). he is a loving husband, devoted father to a young, hearing-impaired daughter, good friend and solid worker. he is the embodiment of main street, u.s.a. in these troubled times when a lot of bad things are happening to a lot of good people. in addition to the very relatable pressures of making ends meet and health care costs that must be dealt with, he begins to suffer from dreams of an apocalypse. every night's sleep is fitful and he is plagued with visions of a gathering storm, the likes of which has never been seen. a viscous rain similar to motor oil falls, cyclones and tremendous arcs of lightning fill the horizon, birds careen through the air in dazzling and troubling patterns only to fall from the sky and humans and animals are driven violently insane.
the dreams begin to edge their way into curtis' waking life. pain from wounds obtained in the dreams lingers throughout the day. he begins to doubt his sanity. true to his character, he quietly, pragmatically tries to address it. there is a history of mental illness in the family, as his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and has been in the hospital or assisted living for twenty-five years. he takes reasonable steps; visiting his doctor, doing research at the local library, seeing a counselor. none of it is enough, though. as much as he wants to keep a lid on things, the overwhelming fear of the coming storm compels him to obsessively work on the family's storm shelter. his increasingly erratic behavior results in him losing his job and friends. small town whispers about his precarious mental state come to a head at a lions club dinner and the approaching storm becomes very real, resulting in a long, dark night of the soul for the family as they wait in the shelter for it to pass.
from the first frame, it is riveting. it begins with one of the increasingly terrifying nightmare sequences, quickly establishing an atmosphere of cold dread and unsure footing that nichols expertly maintains throughout. michael shannon proves once again that he is one of the best american actors working today. he and nichols pick up right where they left off with the excellent shotgun stories (2007) and craft an even more assured and quietly harrowing portrait of american unraveling. he conveys every painful nuance of a good man who fears his own mind. all the little things that you count on in a husband and a father are there and, though much of it is elliptical, as the film finds him turning inward for the first half, all that he does is clearly for the benefit of his wife and daughter. his secrecy is never meant to deceive, only to protect, as he struggles to maintain and understand his own thoughts. as his compulsion to expand the shelter overrides all other concerns, putting his family's house and daughter's health at risk, it is only because he knows that the storm in his visions will render these other concerns moot. you can see his constant struggle to contain himself in every nearly-imperceptible wince and in the simple rigidity of how he sits just a little too straight. when he finally breaks and reveals the extent of his madness to the whole town in a very public meltdown, it leaves you with such a sick, sad feeling and when he shouts at them, in a perfectly written phrase, that "if this thing comes true there ain't gonna be any more" it is frightening enough to make every single person in that room wonder just how much he has right.
the photography is simple and elegant and the nightmare sequences are very effective, relying mainly on tapping into fears that must be universal to a simple family man, rather than computer-generated animation (they use that judiciously). the electrical storm is also a beautiful metaphor for both looming socioeconomic troubles and curtis' mind, constantly growing more imposing, firing uncontrollably. the whole cast does a fantastic job with well written material. shannon isn't a surprise, of course. the guy is a powerhouse. the film's best kept secret, however, is jessica chastain.
she is just outstanding in this, matching michael shannon step for step, no small feat in itself. it wouldn't be half the film it is without her. she is steadfast and true, protective of her family, patient but no pushover. she is a wife that a husband can trust implicitly. it is her strength that makes it believable when curtis finally confesses his fears to her. she deserves to know and makes it easy to take her into his confidence. she deftly walks the delicate line between being tough enough to keep her household intact and being the understanding, loving caregiver to a husband who may be losing his mind. as frightening as it must be to feel your mind slipping away, and being acutely conscious of it, there is an entirely equal set of anxieties and helpless fears for the person who has to watch it happening to the person they love. the pressure on her to be a wife and mother, while having no one to help carry her burden, would have to be immense. chastain gives us every bit of this and more. it's never cartoonish or exaggerated, just good, real people, devoted to each other, an understated and fine portrayal of a marriage that could survive everything up to the apocalypse.
i know that some folks have had a problem with the ending of the film. i am not one of them. i think that it works and i think that, while a more ambiguous ending would have left you with a puzzle about curtis' mental state that was satisfying in a different way, this resolution reinforces all the things i liked about the movie and was in keeping with the horrors that curtis couldn't suppress. it is a beautiful, stark and terrifying survey of an american landscape that finds a lot of people full of fear, one bad break away from being on the street.
what is in that storm on the horizon?