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Fantastic Fest 2011 Review: ‘Take Shelter’

September 26, 2011

I’m used to seeing disturbing movies at Fantastic Fest, but I wasn’t expecting to be emotionally gutted by a film this year. Take Shelter shook me to the core. I felt physically ill halfway through the film, and the reverent silence that followed my screening indicated that I wasn’t alone in my pathos. What is truly astonishing is that the film accomplished this with negligible gore and violence. This is a psychological journey that depends fully on the performance of Michael Shannon as a man who is mentally unraveling right before our eyes, and boy does he deliver.

Shannon plays Curtis, a content married man earning an honest wage in a rural town. Save for a deaf daughter (Tova Stewart) who is awaiting a cochlear transplant, his life is uncomplicated and modest. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) supplements their income by hand stitching embroidery on linens and curtains for the townsfolk. One day, Curtis becomes plagued by terrifying visions and nightmares that literally render him unable to breath.  Most of these traumatic visions begin with a powerful storm bringing amber colored sludge-like rain, followed by some sort of horrific attack on himself or his family. Convinced that some catastrophic event is on the horizon, he obsessively begins reinforcing the family’s storm cellar, stocking it with food, water, and gas masks to prepare for the unseen event. Naturally (and justifiably) his friends and family think that he is going nuts and jump off the crazy train. Abandoned by most of his people, Curtis desperately tries to convince his frightened wife to believe in him.

We’ve seen plenty of movies that deal with mental illness, but what set this movie apart is that Curtis is wholly aware of his delusions. His mother was institutionalized after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and he knows that he has a genetic predisposition for the disease. You could say that he is hyper-aware, so he has a difficult time reconciling that knowledge with his utter belief that he has some sort of sixth sense. Is he truly crazy, or are his visions apocalyptic? Should he blindly follow his gut intuition, or should he surrender himself to an institution?

Writer and director Jeff Nichols does a superb job of keeping you guessing until the end, and even then you will be left scratching your head. The film is deliberately paced, allowing us to become fully invested in Curtis and his family. The performances are simply amazing. A lesser actor could have made the movie silly and contrite, but Shannon is devastatingly empathetic. You’ll find yourself hoping that his prophecies are true, just so his character finds redemption.  Chastain is resolute in her determination to stand by her husband despite the blow to her relationships. I found her quiet performance convincing; she has had no reason to doubt him before, so she is reluctant to do so now. It’s a great portrayal of a loyal wife trying to come to grips with the fact that her husband may be off his rocker.

The slow pace might be a turn off to some expecting an action thriller, but the ultimate payoff is rich and satisfying.  The tension is palpable and well developed, and in a just world we will see Shannon’s name come Oscar nomination time. A minimalist and foreboding score (by David Wingo) perfectly complements the movie.  The cinematography is gorgeous; capturing the pastoral peacefulness of Ohio (where the film was shot) contrasted with the ominous gray and blue storm scenes that provide a constant source of dread.  I’m going to go so far as to posit that Take Shelter is a modern day masterpiece not to be missed.

Rating 4/4


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