I thought I was over lambasting the Academy’s Oscar nominations. Then I saw Take Shelter.
Jeff Nichols’ second film begins with Michael Shannon’s character Curtis standing outside as a dark yellow rain begins to pour from the storming rain. These are the first of many nightmarish apocalyptic-type dreams Curtis will have.
Curtis becomes possessed and disturbed by these nightmares – to a point where the contents of them impact his day to day life. He dreams he gets bit by his dog and he can’t stand to be near his dog anymore. He dreams of the storm of all storms approaching his modest Ohio neighborhood and he makes building up his tornado shelter priority number one.
Since getting into the business, Shannon has been known for his portrayal of all types of mad men. Bug certainly help put Shannon on the map in 2006 as a mentally disturbed war veteran pent up in a motel room. Boardwalk Empire has helped him unleash psychotic, religious anger. And My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done he really impressed as an unhinged murderer. Take Shelter might be his best performance yet.
At just around two hours, Nichols gives Take Shelter the perfect subdued pacing that really lets its buried psychotic nature breath a bit. Shannon’s character flows from helpful husband and father to a man fixated on two things – his mental state of mind and the storm he knows is going to threaten their lives. But the film plays out in a way that it all unravels so slowly and so terrifyingly that by the final act you’re full of goosebumps – not because you’re scared, but because you’re so very much convinced by Shannon’s performance.
There’s a lot of doom and gloom to be found in Take Shelter, but there are unwitting bright spots that push the film along. Curtis’ wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), stays by his side throughout the struggle. That kind of hope makes you believe and makes you root for Curtis’ well-being. With Samantha and his deaf daughter Hannah by his side, you don’t want to see him rot into mental oblivion. Those two female characters put value to Curtis’ life and makes you care.
But the real meat of Take Shelter is Shannon’s performance. It is the single most driving force of the entire film and it’s what you’ll remember most. Shannon is scary, maniacal and frightening. No, not in the horror movie sense of the words, but in realistic ways. There aren’t many moments that explode – just a few – but the ones that do will sell you on Curtis’ struggle to cope with his mental tangle, which is pushed on by the fact that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her mid-30’s.
I was so taken aback by Shannon that by the time I reached Nichols’ menacing final act I was curled up in a ball trying to squash the chills that had rushed up my arms. It’s the most powerful performance I’ve seen in the last year that I’m still trying to figure out how Shannon and the entire film (Nichols’ direction and screenwriting) were shut out of the Academy Awards. Maybe I’m hyping things up because I just finished watching the thing, but it left more of an impact on me than Clooney and company have so far. Shannon will certainly have his chances down the road, but he deserves to be nominated for his best work, not out of pity down the road.
When you take it all into account, there isn’t all that much to Take Shelter. It’s simple, but it’s got these perfect dynamics that really make it mesh together into one powerful ball of thunder. The nightmare scenes are jarring, the daytime scenes are realistically frightening and the family struggles are so valuable to the character progression that it keeps you caring. Give this one a chance. It’s one of last year’s greatest efforts.