"There is a storm coming like nothing you've seen! And not one of you is prepared for it!"
Michael Shannon is an actor of unusual intensity. There was a time in Hollywood when intense actors were much more commonplace, but that has faded over time, and most of those actors have gone on to softer, less intense roles (Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Ed Harris, Edward Norton, & John Malkovich are five examples of this). I would place Shannon firmly in this camp. He's an actor that can make even the smallest, most subtle gesture carry the weight of a thousand words, and everything he does is endlessly watchable, regardless of how good the film around him is. His performances in Bug, Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, are intense, focused, and brilliant.
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols worked with Shannon on 2007's Shotgun Stories, which I have not seen, and they have reunited for 2011's Take Shelter. Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in a small town in Ohio who begins having nightmares about approaching storms. His dreams range from a strange, yellowish brown rain, to people trying to break into his house and abduct his daughter, to his own dog attacking him.
Not wanting to worry his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), he doesn't share his anxieties with his family or friends. He goes to a doctor to get some anti-anxiety pills or something that will help him sleep without the nightmares, and his sleep improves after taking those. However, his visions are now beginning to seep into his waking hours, and he begins having visions while at work. His anxiety about all of these visions is fueled mainly by the fact that his mother (Kathy Baker, who has one small, but great scene) was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her mid-30s, which is where Curtis currently finds himself. Are the visions real, or is he losing his mind?
He begins building out the storm shelter in his backyard, seemingly in an attempt to give into the visions and not admit to himself that he may be going crazy. His biggest issue beyond these visions is that he is keeping everything secret from his wife and friends, and as his obsession with building the shelter increases, their concern for him does too, and threatens to unravel everything in his life.
Now, to say anymore about the film would be to ruin it. If you haven't seen the film yet, and I recommend you do, I would stop reading now, and return after you've seen it, as I find it impossible to talk about the film without ruining the surprises.
Okay, so here's what worked for me and what didn't. One of the things that really worked for me was the decision, whether it was by the costumer or the director, is the fact that Curtis is always dressed nicely in his visions, and differently from how he dresses in real life. His clothes in real life are in earth tones and usually unkempt, but whenever he's in a vision, his clothes are nice, neat, and usually dark colors. It's a really nice, instant visual cue to let you know whether you're watching a dream or not. It's an incredibly effective tool, and a wonderful example of what great costuming can do, even in a small, modern, independent film.
Here's my biggest issue though. The fact that the film doesn't end when he makes the decision to leave the shelter. He takes his family down there, thinking that the storm has come. They stay down there the whole night, and his wife tries to convince him that there is no storm and he needs to let them out. He tries to give her the keys, but she tells him that he has to do it himself. I didn't need her to vocalize this, I understood what she was trying to do, and thought it was a bit of a cheat to have her verbalize that. The ten minutes or so leading up to him opening the shelter are super intense. It's the best scene in the film, and the intensity is almost unbearable.
Anyway, the fact that the film continues after they leave the shelter makes you immediately know that there's going to be a storm at the end. It seemed anti-climactic after the intensity of the scene in the shelter to have the film continue. You now know exactly what's going to happen, so it ruins its impact when it does happen.
Shannon is remarkable in the film, definitely one of the best performances of last year. The scene at the Lions Club dinner when he flips the table and begins screaming at everyone, then withdraws and breaks down when he sees the look of terror on his daughter's face is amazing. It's the kind of big, showy, scenery chomping scene that actors love, and the fact that he can have that explosion and bring it down so quietly and effectively at the end is incredible. Jessica Chastain is also very good, and was in so many films last year that she went from unknown to overexposed all in the same six month period. She's definitely an actress worth watching though and is a great match for Shannon's intensity.
Take Shelter is a very good film that could have been a great film had it ended about six minutes before it did. It's very much the same feeling I had about The Hurt Locker. I don't know, maybe the ending worked really well for some people, and I could see it working for some, but it really disappointed me, if for no other reason than, once the film continues, you know exactly how it's going to end, and it was so mysterious up until that point.