October 21, 2011

MOVIES: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an Ohio laborer who's beginning to frazzle under the economic stress of the day. That stress is manifesting itself in horrifying nightmares, usually beginning with intense storms of brown, oily water, and ending when Curtis or his loved ones are violently attacked.

The dreams would be bad enough, but Curtis can't shake the feeling that these apocalyptic visions are premonitions of some horror to come, and he's self-aware enough to be even more scared by that feeling than he is by the dreams. Curtis's mother, after all (Kathy Baker, absolutely perfect in her one small scene), has been in assisted living since being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was roughly the age that Curtis is now.

And so Curtis slowly disintegrates, becoming obsessed with enlarging an old storm shelter in his backyard, an expense that infuriates his wife (Jessica Chastain, continuing this spectacular breakthrough year she's having), who doesn't understand what's wrong with her husband.

Michael Shannon is an actor I haven't been particularly fond of in the past, but he's remarkable here; Curtis is not a hugely talkative man, but Shannon conveys volumes with a furrowed brow or a shrug. Look at the anguish he's enduring, for instance, in a late scene where he's desperately looking for the courage to do what his wife needs him to do; it's painful to watch him fight against his own terror.

I wish the movie had ended about five minutes earlier; the final scene is an attempt at eerie ambiguity that comes off instead as artsy and pretentious in precisely the way that the movie has so skillfully avoided to that point. But the rest of the movie is so beautifully made, and such a deeply resonant allegory about the economic and social anxieties we're living with these days, that I have no qualms about recommending it with great enthusiasm.

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