Friday, 1 June 2012

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter appears to be an exercise in genre from afar, an apocalyptic tale full of Godly spite and Biblical allegory; up close it's actually a shockingly intimate drama playing down expectations instead embarking on a familial drama charting resurgent mental illness. No need to feel gipped here though as the film is steeped in ambiguity regarding its central character who may (or may not) be plagued with prophetic dreams of the world's end, keeping the stakes high enough for an uncomfortable ride.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis, husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to their young deaf daughter Hannah. He works as a construction worker and seems generally happy with his existence, that is until he's haunted by dreams of a deadly storm, a terrifying vision of post-apocalypic hysteria not too distant from Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2009). As the dreams intensify and hallucinatory symptoms emerge causing Curtis to confuse dream with reality he starts pushing those closest to him away as they become involved in his night terrors. With his behaviour become increasingly erratic his wife starts to doubt his health as he becomes determined to protect his family from the oncoming storm, obsessively building a bunker to save them at all cost.

What at first starts as an apocalyptic story not unlike many others proving popular as of late it divulges a different purpose all together; though we're never sure whether Curtis' psychotic episodes are imagined or part of a supernatural prophecy, Take Shelter ripens into a character study regarding the effects of mental illness in the family. Hardly a subject to depict in ease the drama never sets a wrong foot, always sincere and fully realised at every turn it never assumes anything and feels entirely confident in its execution. This is largely helped by the talents of Shannon and Chastain, as we witness the foundations of their marriage crumble we're completely transfixed in their troubles and feel both sides of their desperation. The film's two hours are spent almost entirely focussed on Curtis therefore sidelining Samantha; Jessica Chastain adds such depth and emotion to her that despite following another character throughout she manages to become our emotional compass as we feel her pain and worries over her husband's inexplainable behaviour. We're able to attach to both sides of the marriage making for a successfully conflicting and affective drama.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols announced himself as a young talent to watch with the stunning Shotgun Stories in 2007, which also starred Michael Shannon. With Take Shelter there's no doubt in Nichols as a rising filmmaker seeping with these two understated productions to his name. His knack for building atmosphere and wonder from the most acquainted of subjects - in this case small town America -  brings to mind the ponder-some otherworldly qualities of Terrence Malick. Like Malick who emerged in the 70s, Nichols has arrived as a fully formed talent producing confident stately pictures, an occurrence rarely seen in directors this early in a career. In just two films it's clear that Nichols has great affinity for actors, crafting deep resonating scenes around the talents of his cast; with Michael Shannon starring in his third film Mud we're seeing an exciting actor/director relationship continuously evolve. With Shannon - a huge talent with possibly the most impactful presence of any actor working today - able to be contained and used with precise craft by a director showing as much promise as Nichols, anything produced from them in the future will be highly anticipated.

Take Shelter is impossible to fault, those that can were perhaps expecting a middle-of-the-road genre picture offering cheap thrills. It operates as both a subjective supernatural thriller and topical family drama with the most fulfilling of results. It may not offer any new revealing notes regarding mental illness remaining reticent in its dealings though consistently respectful to the topic. This of course was never the sole aim and by remaining ambiguous till the end we never know how much truth was in Curtis' visions but from either side of the truth both remain fully realised and impressive. Everything about Take Shelter is stirring making it a firm recommended watch.