A London Film Festival review of TAKE SHELTER and an interview with
lead actor Michael Shannon by Timothy E. RAW
"Sleep well in your beds. 'Cause if this thing comes true, there ain't gonna be any more."
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)
For his sophomore feature, writer-director Jeff Nichols returns to the widescreen Midwest of his debut, Shotgun Stories, another film which saw a family torn apart by violence. In Take Shelter the fury of nature itself attacks the hearth, only this time the loaded gun is hereditarily concealed.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a married everyman with visions of an apocalyptic storm on the horizon. Living in a small town where patriarchal responsibility is a collectively held credo ("Take care of your family and handle your business"), Curtis 'protects' his family by erecting a storm shelter in his backyard, handling the business of building it by dipping into the savings for his deaf daughter's cochlear implant as well as the money his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) has put aside for a long overdue vacation. Behind his wife's back, Curtis takes out a mortgage on the house, not wanting Samantha to worry about what terrifies him: that his dreams are just that, and very likely the onset of schizophrenia which overwhelmed his mother at age thirty-five—the same age he is now. With his father having died the previous April, and feelings of emasculated shame rendering him unable to talk to Samantha, there's a sense of no support or buffer against his increasing instability. As an audience member, you can't help but feel pulled along by the freight train of anxiety rushing through every waking and dreaming moment of Curtis' life, and Take Shelter offers not one minute of comfort or respite during the entirety of the its duration.
It would be all too easy for Take Shelter to coast on the tension of its central conceit—are Curtis' nightmares the result of congenital madness, or are these authentic premonitions warning him of a natural disaster to come? It might seem at first that the film is simply asking its audience to choose between a white rubber room and the end of the world, yet these questions point to deeper thematic concerns that standard paranoid thrillers rarely make time for. Director Nichols' sensitively drawn family portrait is an all too real social allegory, a representation of the economic paranoia that's currently plaguing the entire United States and much of the rest of the world. For Curtis, the oncoming storm presents the more terrifying question of what he can afford to throw away—to save those he loves he must breach their trust, smash their dreams and bring them to the brink—yet if he's wrong, and the end of days are all just in his head, the consequences of survival are surely far worse, with no financial foundation for the family to stand on.
Rather than predictably plunging Curtis into ever-greater fits of irrationally, Take Shelter's protagonist is all too aware he's losing his mind. The desperation of his private attempts to make sense of what's happening without alarming his wife and child is also that which humanizes him. Watching Curtis take the Cosmo-like multiple-choice survey "are you a paranoid schizophrenic?" for lack of nowhere else to turn is more wrenching than you'd ever expect, and in a film filled with moments of quiet heartbreak, none is so unexpectedly poignant as when Curtis carefully budgets the building of his shelter against his meagre finances, knowing full well the madness of what he's doing, and the risk he runs of ruining three lives in the process. David Wingo's superb score reflects Curtis' turbulent indecisiveness, wrestling for control and resisting before being swept along by unexplainable—and unshakable—gut instinct. It's a decision whereby Curtis simply cannot afford, in all senses of the word, to make the wrong choice—to take your eye off the ball for one minute in this economy is at the risk of destroying everything, and as Curtis' obsession with the shelter begins affecting his on-the-job performance, the health insurance that guarantees his daughter's operation hangs in the balance, as does his marriage. The financial implications and how they test a relationship that, up until this point anyway, was nothing but honest and rock steady are as unsettling as the lucidity of Curtis' night terrors.
In showing us that terror, the special effects courtesy of the Strauss brothers astound—almost enough (but not quite) to forgive them the directorial debacles of Alien Vs Predator: Requiem and Skyline. The budget may be small, but the biblical cloud formations and the level of sound and fury on display recall—in a good way—Twister. In just these sequences alone, Take Shelter probably has more standout moments than any other film this year, each nightmare a progressively rattling bona-fide set piece that struck me on several occasions with more open-mouthed awe than all the big trailer moments of the past summer's blockbusters combined. From the moment the sky starts raining motor oil, the film captivates with it's ability to unnerve, though like the most disconcerting nightmares, Curtis' terrors fixate on people, objects, sights, sounds, and textures from his everyday life, at times making them undistinguishable from reality. A dream where Curtis encounters his wife in the kitchen, homicidally ragged and gazing intently at a knife is an unforgettable image of shuddersome interpretation, all the more potent for the way in which Wingo's score builds to an explosion of rage that never comes. Without doubt it's the tightest knot I've felt in my reliably fearful stomach all year in a darkened theatre. These genre elements are pulled off so effectively and look so polished, it's quite easy to forget that Nichols' is an indie filmmaker making films about small-town Midwesterners.
The construct of these nightmares and the way in which their influence is felt in waking life is an expert alchemy of editing, chock full of smart visual beats that leave a lasting impression. Doing away with the old cliché of having Curtis jerking up into an extreme sweat-drenched close-up, breathing as though he's just ran a marathon, a variety of techniques are employed to show the all-hours grip of night terrors. In an early nightmare, as the panic crescendos, editor Parke Gregg inserts flash-cuts of Curtis in restless sleep, unable to escape the pull of the dream. Later his frenzied howls are heard off-screen – disconnected from a human face, they sound otherworldly and strange. When Curtis can no longer hide these visions from Samantha, the camera stays focused on her powerlessness as Curtis tries to wake up. Brilliant match cutting makes apparent to the audience the looming tragedy: a shot of Samantha handling small change bills cuts to Curtis dredging up the yard as he starts to build the shelter, effectively spending all their money in one hit.
All this technical-know-how is surely so inspired because of the onscreen work of the actors, first and foremost leading man Michael Shannon, whose asymmetrical features—seeming always at war with themselves anyway—are the perfect visual expression of Curtis' internal conflict. As one of the most singularly unique character actors of the last decade and a personal favourite I've been championing for years now, Take Shelter rewards simply by being one of a select few films in which Shannon is given top billing. Many critics at the press screening I attended moaned that casting Michael Shannon as a crazy person at this point is especially unimaginative given his colourful career of crackpots, and it's true that Shannon has a reputation for over the top psychotics (Bug, Revolutionary Road). Given the actor's reputation for agitated insanity, Shannon could have quite easily lit a stick of dynamite under this if he wanted to, yet he's never been more restrained and subdued than he is here. A meltdown at a community gathering the only trademark moment of depth charge intensity we've come to expect, and one fans will relish when it does. Commendably, there's no playing at mental illness here. Bereft of any hint of bombast, his portrayal of Curtis upsets any of the ideas of typecasting. The family portrait is so well drawn that his shifts in manic temperature only ever need be minute to register seismically. Watching Shannon step into the shelter itself for the first time is a completely silent moment that packs all the wallop of a very vocal unburdening. This is a place he's built as a retreat, but already a room contaminated by betrayal, given the many lies he's told up to this point, and what little air there is seems permeated by his mother's past and what will possibly become his future, the shelter itself becoming a monument to what he could never hope to outrun. Shannon's work here is a masterclass in subtlety—every time we so much as watch Curtis sitting in a chair, it's not always clear who or what he's tuned into, but he's always reacting. Maybe that's why the feeling of other characters getting the short shrift persists even as they're given swathes of dialogue. The camera is trained on Curtis so much, that when Samantha finally tells her husband that she's suspicious of his behaviour, it's not felt as keenly as it ought to be, her arc as a character feeling very much secondary. Far from a smear on Chastain's performance, its more that Nichols is interested in cataloguing Shannon's reactions over Chastain's emoting. This is largely Curtis' story, and as such it's told almost exclusively through Shannon's eyes—and what eyes they are! Its like staring into an abyss and having the abyss stare right back at you.
While Take Shelter may very well be a one-man show, all the supporting players do exemplary work. When Shea Whigham's Dewart plainly states to his best friend "I don't want to see you fuck up," it's one of those rare heart-to-heart exchanges in film that's not about thickening the plot or, as the case might otherwise have been here, a cheap sell on the deepening of LaForche's madness via a relatively sane contrasting point of view. Nothing more than what it needs to be, the scene is a simple character beat that in one line, suggests Dewart knows far more than he lets on, but, unable to relate in any way to what Curtis is going through, can expand upon his feelings no further. It may not be much, but it brings home how much Curtis has at stake—Whigham makes it his own, and walks away with one of the film's most indelible scenes. Such quiet moments before the storm prove to be just as attention-grabbing as the dream sequences in a film crackling with enough heartache and intelligence to match all the sound and fury.
Schizophrenia, premonitions, and a crumbling economy; Take Shelter is that rare small-scale film that dares not to be outsized by the weightiness of its subject matter. In a time where big-budget McFilms all look and sound the same, Nichols shows us that it's possible to present something equally polished and still do new things, even on a much smaller budget with limited resources. It's an attitude that renews your belief in the power of movies, especially when the results are this good.
2011 has already proven itself as a year of remarkable actor-director partnerships, all of which promise to endure over the next few years – Michael Fassbender has Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), Woody Harrelson has Oren Movermen (The Messenger, Rampart). Undoubtedly two of the most exciting collaborations in contemporary cinema, though neither has me quite as fired up as the tag-team of Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols, a writer-director whose made nothing short of a quantum leap following Shotgun Stories – in this writer's opinion one of the top ten films of 2008. Now with Take Shelter, Shannon and Nichols have reunited to make the single best film of 2011.
video interview: Michael Shannon
This exclusive interview was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW 24th October 2011.
Take Shelter had its UK premiere on Wednesday 26th October 2011 as part of the 55th London Film Festival and goes on general release on 25th November 2011.
Our thanks to Marc Foley-Comer for his help in arranging this interview.