Letter From The Editor - Issue 42 - November 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2011

Take Shelter

If you build it...

There's a fine line between intuition and insanity in Jeff Nichols' brilliantly crafted 'Take Shelter'

Take Shelter
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker and Katy Mixon
Rated R / 2 hours
Now playing in NY and LA
(out of four)

Few instincts are more powerful than the need to protect one's family. From what? From anything. From the threatening, from the inevitable, from the unknowable. Especially the unknowable.

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) can't be sure what he knows and what he doesn't. All he's certain of is that these dreams he's been having won't let up. At first it seems like a run-of-the-mill nightmare - he's out in his yard with his young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), a storm's on the horizon. The dog won't stop barking. Rain starts falling gently - it's got a strange color, a sort of dark orange - and the thunder and lightning get closer, and the darkening clouds curl into a twister, and the dog still won't stop barking. And then he lunges, sinks his teeth in . . . and that, of course, is where it stops.

But the dreams persist. It always starts like any other normal moment in any other normal day. It always continues with a storm. And it always ends with something, or someone, or some force of nature, trying to do something terrible to Curtis' family. To take them away.

Curtis is a rational man; he knows, logically, that dreams are only dreams. But that doesn't stop him from instinctively believing them - believing that they are, in some powerful and abstract way, a kind of warning. Is it instinct, or is it madness? Is it something else entirely? Something supernatural? Divine intervention? Whatever the case, he begins to fix up the storm shelter in the backyard. He takes out a risky bank loan to help him expand it into something liveable. He stocks up on supplies, canned goods, cots, potable water. As he does this, he tries to act normal; he even tries to seek help. But still, just in case . . . he better spring for those heavy-duty gas masks.

The most acceptable explanation is, well, genetics. Curtis' mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in her mid-30s, and placed in professional care for the rest of her life. One of the most interesting things about how Curtis reacts to this sudden onset of apocalyptic nightmares is that his first thought is to go to the library and read up on mental illness. Then he goes to see his mother, and he asks her how it all began. Then he goes to see a doctor, then a therapist.

Usually in a scenario like this, the man with the crazy dreams is entirely certain of his own sanity. The certainty, as much as anything, is what alienates him from everyone else. But in this case, Curtis isn't sure at all. Should he be protecting his family from impending doom, or from himself?

One of my early reactions to Take Shelter was that it's a somewhat less sentimental combination of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Field of Dreams. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I saw the differences. Not that the parallels aren't there - they are, and I'd imagine movies of that ilk were an inspiration to writer/director Jeff Nichols. But in the case of those films and others like them, the fathers at the center of the story were obsessing over something that had more to do with them than anything else. Their actions were tantamount to mid-life crisis, and their need to reconcile themselves with whatever instinctual or otherworldly forces had taken hold of them.

In Take Shelter, Curtis' experience - while certainly a mystery to himself, and something he's trying desperately to understand - is really about his family, and protecting them at all costs. Even at the risk of appearing insane.

As immaculately constructed as the film is, it wouldn't work nearly as well without these specific performances. Shannon - who was also very good in Nichols' debut film, Shotgun Stories - has never been more perfectly cast. There's something about his look and mannerisms that typically lands him roles as strange, largely off-putting side characters - Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire; Kathy Bates' mentally deranged son in Revolutionary Road; the paranoid ex-soldier in Bug.

Here, he's a normal, immensely sympathetic man besieged by forces he can't control; the quiet intensity and restraint of Shannon's performance are mesmerizing.

And then there's Jessica Chastain. She was anonymous this time last year, and now she's one of the best actresses in the business. Her performance as Curtis' wife Samantha in Take Shelter is as stunning as her work in The Tree of Life - and it just so happens those may be the two best films I've seen all year. And that's not even mentioning her excellence in The Help and The Debt. (Her 2011 is far from finished - she's got at least two and possibly three films being released later this year.)

The straighforwardness of Nichols' filmmaking style is deceptive. There's something specific about cinema that allows us to express and discuss things in intangible, visceral ways - ways that can't be replicated in any other medium - and in that way, Nichols fully realizes the capabilities of the art form. There is something universal about Take Shelter, in that it's about the powerlessness to understand or control the world around us, and that it can speak to any number of things, and any number of abstract interpretations. Curtis may be paranoid, he may be wise, he may be mad - but in the face of social, financial, political and mental ruin, maybe what he's doing isn't so irrational after all.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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