Storm a brewin'
The arthouse apocalypse movie - one of cinema's most unusual subgenres. From the Canadian Last Night, to the 'troubled-adolescent-forsees-world's-end-plus-becomes-superhero-in-the-process' joys of Donnie Darko, its always interesting when a filmmaker or two that aren't Roland Emmerich decide to make a film about impending doom. There was also Southland Tales, but we don't like to talk about that anymore. The last few months have coincidentally seen two offbeat, melancholic takes on all things apocalyptic - Lars von Trier's aptly-named Melancholia (previously reviewed here on filmhaha), and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. There's probably more, but I'm too tired, lazy and apathetic to google it.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not always the best judge of actors. I'm the kind of viewer who is more likely to emerge commenting on the direction, cinematography or writing than the acting performances. But fuck me, Michael Shannon is astounding here. As Curtis - a man whose life begins to fall apart as he experiences weather-based apocalyptic nightmares (or are they actually precognitive visions?) - Shannon is a whirlwind. It's a performance that is equal parts heartbreaking, manic and sympathetic. He's surrounded by some excellent talent - notably this year's hot new thing, Jessica Chastain - but it's Shannon who makes this film worth the time investment. The confusion experienced by Curtis (are the nightmares a vision? Is he mentally unstable? How does he explain his situation to others?) draws us into this story, and he's a protagonist that's easy to relate to.
Shannon is the vital factor in making the film work, although I should take this moment to admit that Jeff Nichols' has laid a rather solid groundwork. Indeed, while its Shannon's portrayal of an everyman on the edge that gives the film an emotionally satisfying hook, there are moments when the on-screen and off-screen talent gel to remarkable effect. While consistently engaging (if flawed, which I'll come to a paragraph or two below), there are moments where everything comes together perfectly. Some are small incidences - little character moments or narrative developments, like a surprise bed wetting. Others are on a grander stale - a violent storm is followed by a powerful emotional shock that is a tour de force of acting, music, cinematography and direction. The focus almost exclusively on Curtis, the film frequently hits these confident heights.
Moderately pretentious tangent: Throughout the film I was struck by a subtextual religious commentary. Some are subtle - I was potentially misreading the relevance of symbolism related to 'taking the first born child'. But there was this nagging suggestion, to me anyway that this is perhaps an abstract religious satire - trying to tease out that often blurred line between proselytizing and madness. Last minute plot developments make it hard to tell what side Nichols falls on, but there's definitely something there, intentional or not. But I digress.
While I mostly enjoyed my time with Take Shelter, I would have to be a cynical so-and-so and air a few grievances. On one hand, the intensity of the film is to be praised, but there are times when the story resorts to the odd contrivance or cliche. Foreshadowing is used to less-than-subtle effect - like the overemphasis on the importance of Curtis' medical insurance (complication ahoy!). And the basic narrative isn't always bursting with originality - some predictable plot beats don't help a pacing that occasionally lacks momentum. These sins are mostly forgiven by the film's confidence of delivery, it should be said. Less forgivable is a token 'ambiguous' ending that, despite a nice shot or two, kind of invalidates what has come before. Indeed, the hastily introduced resolution is actively at odds with the more considered ambiguity that impresses throughout the preceding two hours.
Michael Shannon is undoubtedly the star of the show here, but overall Take Shelter is a curious, confident and considered piece of work. Imperfect, no doubt, but the highs dominate the lows. This is compelling independent cinema, despite the 'deadliest storm' CGI not being able to hold a candle to Independence Day. Who cares? Explosions are overrated anyway.