TIFF 2011: TAKE SHELTER Review

     September 8, 2011

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Michael Shannon is one of those amazing character actors whose work went unnoticed for years simply because he was so good that people didn’t realize just how far he disappeared into his roles. The lanky actor with sunken eyes did get a token Oscar nod for his wonderful work in Revolutionary Road that increased his profile, but it still doesn’t feel like he gets the respect he deserves. Fortunately high profile parts in Boardwalk Empire (he’s the psychotic Christian cop) and an upcoming appearance as General Zod in Man Of Steal should change all that. However, Shannon may find himself becoming a well known screen presence before Superman is even released thanks to Take Shelter. Though the movie is flawed and probably not the finest entry in The Toronto Film Festival this year, Shannon’ s absolutely remarkable central performance is the reason why acting awards were invented. If he doesn’t find himself locking up a well-deserved second Academy Award nomination for Take Shelter this winter, then the Academy should probably be disbanded. Hit the jump to find out why.

Shannon isn’t exactly known for his romantic leading man roles. Though I’m sure he’s a nice enough guy, his tall frame and slightly strange features has typecast him into a career of weirdos and outsiders. Since those are typically the most compelling characters in any given film, I can’t imagine it bothers him that much. The only problem is that it limits the lead roles he can play, so it’s nice when something like Take Shelter comes along that puts the remarkable actor at the center of the action. It’s a perfect role for Shannon as well, allowing him to start off as a respectable family man who gradually descends into either psychosis (or the only rational thinker in the movie) and serious respect needs to be given to writer/director Jeff Nichols for writing a complex script that leaves that question tantalizingly open until a somewhat disappointing conclusion.

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So what’s this whole thing about, you ask? Geez, calm down I was just about to tell you. Shannon stars Curtis, a content father and construction worker who starts having odd and incredibly vivid dreams about an impending apocalypse. All the dreams take place at his house and while they first only involve a mysteriously dark rainfall, soon that rain starts transforming animals, neighbors and even his family into insane killers. These dreams are so specific and intense that Curtis starts thinking they are visions and begins work on a large storm shelter in his backyard where he and his family can hide when the apocalyptic shit hits the fan. There’s a catch though. Curtis’ mother is an institutionalized schizophrenic and he’s always worried that he may have inherited the delusional mental illness himself. Certainly that observation isn’t lost on his friends and family who become increasingly concerned as he sinks more money, time, and energy into the project, compromising his job and relationships in the process.

The concept of Take Shelter is undeniably compelling. Told entirely from Curtis’ perspective, we’re never sure exactly what’s real outside of his mind and nor is Curtis himself. That fear of not being sure if you can trust your own mind is brilliantly teased out by Nichols’ screenplay and he directs the dreams with the heightened intensity of a horror movie, which really makes the audience feel the protagonist’s sense of panic. Shannon is perfectly cast, appearing in every scene and gaining the audience’s sympathy with his shaggy dog portrayal, while at the same time not afraid to appear frightening or threatening at the height of his delusional behavior. It’s tensely disturbing to be caught with Shannon during this possible meltdown and the actor admirably never shows his cards. Whether he’s imagining the apocalypse or not, his fear and concern for his family is real. You want to believe him and care for him even at his most psychotic. Tree Of Life’s impossibly perfect mother Jessica Chastain offers strong support in a similar role as Curtis’ ever-caring, if fearful wife. She’s a perfect scene partner for Shannon at his most unhinged, managing to achieve a complicated combination of concern and fear at all times. Other stand out supporting roles include fellow Boardwalk Empire vet Shea Whigham as Churtis’ only friend and Kathy Baker and his sad and institutionalized mother. But while the entire cast is strong, the movie is ultimately Shannon’s show and he gives quite possibly the finest turn of his already impressive career.

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Take Shelter is definitely a strong effort from the burgeoning filmmaker Nichols whose only previous work was another strong collaboration with Michael Shannon: the underrated Shotgun Stories. The way Nichols walks his delicate balancing act between apocalyptic and psychological horror is undeniably impressive and he makes it about 10-15 minutes away from knocking this movie about of the park. The problem with any film that takes place within the mind of a possibly delusional protagonist is deciding whether or not the delusions are real. For the most of the movie it’s unclear and that’s when Take Shelter is most effective. However, without giving anything away Nichols tries to have it both ways in the conclusion in a manner that I’m not convinced entirely works. I can understand why he did that. This is a film that should have an ambiguous ending. I’m just not certain that Nichols got the balance between delusion and reality quite right. It’s a glaring flaw right at the end that weakens the movie, but thankfully doesn’t kill it.

Wonky ending or not, Take Shelter one of the more compelling and gripping psychological thrillers to come along in years and multiple viewings might be in order to understand exactly what was intended by the closing moments anyways. Regardless, this is a flawed but fascinating movie that demands to be seen by film lovers, if only for Michael Shannon’s extraordinary central performance that’s sure to land him a handful of well deserved acting accolades by the end of the year. The man deserves any praise coming his way. Believe any and all hype you hear about this incredible piece of acting.

—-B

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