Michael Shannon as Cutis in Take Shelter
“Is anyone seeing this?” Michael Shannon’s blue-collar family man, Curtis, asks us - and perhaps himself - during one of his apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter. The film addresses society’s hysterical fears of impending doom, particularly at the apocalyptic level. Whether it be global warming, the Mayan calendar, Muslims, Communism or even the recession, humans have a tendency to lean towards worst case scenarios, which is carefully manipulated by the right wing media and governments, keeping most of us from rebellion.
“You have a good life,” Curtis is told by his friend and work colleague, Dewart (Shea Whigham; Shannon’s Boardwalk Empire co-star). Our protagonist’s set up certainly seems pretty sweet; a well paid job with security and benefits, a beautiful wife and a lovely daughter – a perfectly restrained version of the American dream. However, he starts to have terrifyingly vivid apocalyptic nightmares, involving tornadoes, motor oil rain, crazy people and floating furniture. Are these dreams premonitions or is he descending into madness? Should he be protecting his family from an impending storm or from himself?
Critically acclaimed, as well as the Grand Prize winner at Cannes and already widely regarded as a ‘modern American masterpiece’, the bar had been set high for Jeff Nichols’ second film (after 2007’s Shotgun Stories). It certainly feels original and poignant. It also looks great; the CGI - where it must have been presumably used - is rendered perfectly, giving the film some outstanding looking scenes.
Shannon knows how to play a nutter, having previously impressed as a likeable one in Revolutionary Road and a love-to-hate one in Boardwalk Empire, so a descent into madness for Curtis is believable. However, his performance is subtle and gradual enough to leave the audience with the possibility that he may well be correct about the storm. Jessica Chastain, as Curtis’ wife Samantha, also gives a great performance and is almost unrecognisable from her part in this year’s The Help. It was nice to see, despite a little understandable resistance, her believing in her husband more than most movie wives tend to. Whigham also gives a strong supporting role, which entailed a less understanding character. Take Shelter is amazingly restrained and clever in leaving the audience in the dark about the outcome; it’s one of those films where it is extremely difficult to guess the ending of with any confidence.
So, one of 2011’s best films? Well...As the film approaches its closing scenes, with the tension at its strongest, a possible ending presents itself. An ending in keeping with what the movie seems to have been telling us all along. An ending that would have been perfect in its ambiguity without the educated film viewer feeling cheated. However, we are given an extra five minutes that eventually leads to another conclusion which some have interpreted as equally ambiguous. Almost feeling like the ending to a different film, it felt like a punch line to a two hour joke. Ultimately messing with the film’s message and, unfortunately, demoted it from what would have been a deserved position in the top films of the year.
Take Shelter is showing at Broadway until Thursday December 8
Official Take Shelter website