By Niall McArdle
Just last week I pointed out that Michael Shannon is by far the best thing in Man of Steel, and now here he is – magnificent, introverted and heartbreaking – in Take Shelter, a pre-apocalyptic drama (is there such a genre? Perhaps there should be). Shannon plays Curtis Lafarche, an Ohio regular Joe type who starts to have disturbing visions: storm clouds, tornadoes, lightning, a scary murmuring of birds. He cannot sleep. He has panic attacks. He thinks he might be schizophrenic (his mother, Kathy Baker, is a paranoid schizophrenic). He spends too much time in the family tornado shelter (which he expands without telling anybody). Nobody else, of course, can see it, and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) is getting gradually afraid of him.
Things are complicated by their financial circumstances (tight) and their daughter (deaf after meningitis). A lesser film would have the wife leave him, or she would be growing increasingly distant and probably taking an evening class while her blue-collar husband digs trenches. But Take Shelter is really about keeping a marriage together. Chastain and Shannon look and feel like a real couple, and Chastain takes what could have been a lousy role (long-suffering wife) and gives a note-perfect performance.
Shannon is one of the most remarkable actors at work today. There aren’t many contemporary leading men built on his scale. He is a ridiculously tall man; when he embraces tiny Chastain, she disappears. Part of what makes his performance here so effective is the manner in which he plays against your expectations of what a character that size should be. Another actor might start emoting as soon as the first storm-cloud arrives, but Shannon is a thoughtful, internal actor: he plays everything in quiet moments and hides whatever inner turmoil he has behind his large impassive face and with a soft-spoken voice. At a late moment in the film he finally “goes big” when the stress he’s under proves too much, and it’s a shocking scene and almost unbearable.
There are large visual effects shots, but they don’t seem fake, and the overall tone of the film is something like understated dread. Most of the camerawork uses simple shots instead of shakycam nonsense, and the film has a slow, deliberate pace, matched by a sombre score. What is the meaning of the visions? Is the world coming to an end or is Curtis going crazy? Why is it that these sort of stories always happen in the heartland? (Field of Dreams, Signs, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
The film is, I think, a fable about anxiety and marriage, and if it has any social comment, it is surely about the cost of healthcare in the United States. It’s about the feeling that we all have had at times that there’s something really bad coming just around the corner. The DVD cover and blurb might lead you to think this is a sci-fi/horror film along the lines of Signs. It is far more than that. Made in 2011, this is one of the best and understated dramas I’ve seen in some time, and should confirm Shannon as one of the leading actors of his generation.
Verdict: Four and a half tornado shelters out of five.
The DVD includes a behind the scenes featurette, a Q&A, and a commentary with Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nichols.
- The Iceman (smallscreenreviews.com)