Monday, December 12, 2011

Film Review: "Take Shelter"

This was one of those films that spent so much time on the back burner with me barely considering seeing it while I had the chance, much like "The Ides of March". From the very first moment, this didn't seem like the heavy-hitter that many were pushing it to be. I've seen many a film take on the psychological thriller plot that this one takes on, and it has gotten to the point of becoming a depressing cliche. Too many films have used it as a gimmick with no idea exactly what purpose it serves, if any at all. Their intent behind it is to attain that sought-after title of "mind-fuck" that has been twisted out of any strong meaning it had. It's a term that loud college kids use to explain films that are too smart for them.

And there is a problem to be found in "Take Shelter" in that for the first solid hour, it unfolds in a manner that's so utterly predictable that it nearly turns you off from it. I was writing out the tweet review in my head well before the film was over, somewhere along the lines of "typical rundown of requisite psychological thriller scenes". What held me back from it then was the skill being put on screen. Yes, the cinematography was rather simply, and music merely eerie. All the same, director Jeff Nichols keeps things earth-bound in its depiction of a family teetering not just on, but towards the edge of economic collapse.

There are three "storms" in this film, one being the literal storm that Curtis LaForche, played here by Michael Shannon, sees repeatedly in his dreams. It's a storm that leaks motor oil from the sky and turns people against Curtis to take his hearing impaired daughter away from him. The other storm is the one that Curtis is holding inside himself, as he knows that everything that he's seeing is a delusion created by himself, but he still believes it with all of his soul. And the third storm is the economic landscape that we are repeatedly told they are in the thick of. Each storm is living within and on top of each other.

That consideration goes beyond the impressions of a simple psych-thriller and gives it a purpose outside of one character's own mind. Do you believe in this storm that everyone is talking about, or do you believe in this similar but more literal storm that only you can see. Curtis is not of this financial situation that the country is put in, and continuously throughout the film, he asserts that. He doesn't have a plan for how he'll get them out of the situation the world is imposing upon them. He is concerned foremost with this storm that he has a strong feeling about, but even more with the need to never abandon his family.

There are strong morals at play, and Michael Shannon has received a great deal of praise already for his performance. Far be it from me to discount it entirely, as it is very strong and Shannon is working every muscle that he's been exercising for a while. The central problem is that it is very much an internalized performance, which is disquieting to say the least, but doesn't quite seep under your skin and rush through your veins. The moment when he is the most outspoken towards the end is the moment where he goes off the rails ever so slightly. It becomes very nearly comical, and it's that small moment that gives rise to where the error is in his performance.

Surprisingly enough, however, I could not have been more shocked and surprised by who it was I was applauding throughout the entirety. Jessica Chastain has had a year too packed with performances to necessarily be taken seriously. Between "The Tree of Life" and "The Help", everyone is bowing at her feet, but I never quite got that until just now. Across the film's first hour, I was wishing Chastain's character had been given equal billing as Shannon. The character could have easily been seen a pathetic house Frau, but Chastain gives a passionate performance that not only gives her equal attention as Shannon, but she has a foot on top him.
But for so long, all of these factors are just factors that don't quite congeal together into a film. The typical beats keep placing themselves in the way of the film, and it too often just doesn't know how to steer its way around them. And then we get to the last twenty minutes of the film, which does the most radical turnaround of a film that I have seen this year. It saves the film from being pedestrian and it becomes an incendiary. Chastain's passionate caring and intelligence and Shannon's boiling psyche finally come together in a way that makes the audience, against all logic, uncertain of what will happen.

And then there's a moment where I thought, this is the perfect place for them to end. And then it didn't, and I became worried we were heading somewhere we didn't want to go. And then we got to the real ending. The no-spoilers version of it is that it's strangely uplifting and has the capacity to fulfill the film or shatter it for viewers. For me, it fulfills it to a degree, even if it doesn't quite redeem the lesser aspects of the first hour. But to get deeper into it, here's a short SPOILER ALERT! Whether you perceive the ending to be "real", imaginary, or metaphorical, I see it as Jeff Nichols taking action to give his characters a happy ending. Whatever is happening, the family is not going to leave each other. That is what ending means. They've made their decision. END SPOILERS!

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