Judge Gordon Sullivan has visions of sugar plums. Since he doesn't like sugar plums, that is apocalyptic.
"Is anyone seeing this?"—Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)
If you have the stomach to follow the news, you're aware of the depressing fact that the average American family is lucky to have enough money in savings to cover a month or two of their bills. That means that even a small accident can mean the difference between comfort and catastrophe. In recent years, filmmakers have delighted in giving us films that show us just how close the average person lives to catastrophe, whether it's realistic economic woes or more fanciful sci-fi dangers. They are all surpassed by Take Shelter, a quiet, harrowing film that includes a magnificent performance from Michael Shannon and does a perfect job capturing what it felt like to live in America in 2011.
Facts of the Case
Curtis (Michael Shannon, Cecil B. Demented) is a hardworking family man who is largely living the American dream. He has a beautiful wife (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) and a loving daughter, and can provide for them with a job that he doesn't hate. They're even saving up to take a vacation at Myrtle Beach. Even his health insurance is good, so the fact that his daughter is deaf and needs cochlear implants isn't a huge problem. However, he's been having dreams, dreams of storms coming, and the storm shelter in the backyard starts to obsess him.
The average American does not live in total squalor. Most people live a day-to-day existence that is downright comfortable compared to similar situations even a hundred years ago. Indoor plumbing, electricity, a roof, and a decent amount of food (though a criminally large percentage of our population goes hungry) all have generally improved things over the last two centuries. In some ways it sounds like the good life. It sounds like the good life until we realize that many (if not most) people lead a life of crushing anxiety about keeping these comforts. Fears about job loss, mortgages, and health insurance plague many people, making it difficult to enjoy even the modest comforts that the average person can afford.
What Take Shelter does brilliantly is dramatize those anxieties. Rather than making a (boring) film about a guy worrying about his mortgage, Take Shelter gives its protagonist visions of storms and impending violence. As the audience, we are put in Curtis' place. We worry that this gentle, likeable man may be mentally ill (like his schizophrenic mother) and how that might affect his loving family. Even worse, we may worry that his visions are fundamentally correct, and he's not mentally ill, which would indicate some kind of apocalyptic horror on the horizon. Taken the first way, the film becomes a drama where our everyday anxieties are externalized for a likeable stand-in. Taken the second, and the film is an apocalyptic drama that verges on the surreal.
The film's chief strength is that it doesn't make the audience choose. The most diehard atheist can watch Take Shelter and find some common ground between the fears experienced by Curtis and examples from their own life. In the same way, the most florid born-again Christian will latch on to the Noah's ark parallels and find a tale about prophecy and faith. The fact that the film doesn't come down on one side or the other is what makes it a compelling film.
The film's second strength is Michael Shannon. I first saw him in Cecil B. Demented, and like most of the actors in that fantastic film, he didn't do much high-profile work following it. Then 2010 happened, and he was cast in Boardwalk Empire to excellent reviews. I enjoy his performances on that show, but in Take Shelter his art moves to a whole different level. He runs the gamut of emotions from love for his daughter to fear for her safety, and the anxiety produced by his own impending madness. There's not a false note or unbelievable instant in the whole film, and the fact that he wasn't tipped for a gold statue is one of the worst oversights in awards history. Although she's given much less to do, Jessica Chastain holds her own against such a strong performance. Much like Shannon, she's been around a while, and 2011 was her year as well. She keeps her character from being a one-note harpy who just pooh-poohs her husband's fears about a coming storm.
The film is also aided by this DVD release. The film's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and bright, perfectly serving the film's excellent cinematography. Detail is impressive throughout, and digital artefacts aren't a problem. Considering this was a fairly low-budget film, it looks amazing. The 5.1 audio fares equally well. The dialogue is clean and well-balanced with the excellent score, and the low end rumbles appropriately when Curtis imagines he hears thunder.
Extras start with a commentary by writer/director Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon. The track isn't as revealing as fans of a film like Take Shelter would appreciate, but it gives some solid details on the film's low-budget origins and production stories. There are also some deleted scenes that that are a bit unnecessary, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Finally, we get a Q&A with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oh, but people are going to be arguing about the ending of this film for years. Personally, I'm not a fan. Rather than feeling ambiguous, it feels like a "have your cake and eat it too" kind of move. To be fair, though, this film constructs a narrative noose so tight that I can't figure out a better way to end things either.
Thinking about many viewers, Take Shelter is probably a bit too long at two hours. Though Shannon is never less than riveting, by the 90-minute mark it can get to be overwhelming. I'm sure of that is intentional, but that doesn't always make it a pleasure to sit through.
Take Shelter is a beautiful, well-acted drama that reads like an apocalyptic take on the new economic climate following the 2008 recession. Whether read as a tale of faith or madness, Take Shelter includes some amazing performances and assured directing. This DVD edition is solid, and worth at least a rental for adventurous film fans.
I won't be looking for storms on the horizon, but Take Shelter is not guilty.
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