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Editors note: This review was originally published on Jan. 25, 2010.
PARK CITY — With his sad-eyed intensity and a towering physicality almost like that of Frankenstein’s monster, there’s possibly no more mesmerizing American actor working in any medium today than Michael Shannon. His talents are put to exceptional use in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ devastating Take Shelter.
Snapped up pre-Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics, this knockout prestige picture is a masterfully controlled piece of work on every level — from its precise modulation of mood to its piercing emotional accuracy, its impeccable craftsmanship and breathtaking imagery. Rarely have electrical storms, cloud formations and glowering skies had such an unnerving impact or expressed such dark visual poetry.
While at times it conjures suggestions of vintage Polanski-style paranoia in rural America, this haunting psychological thriller is also a quasi-horror movie firmly rooted in slice-of-life reality. An allegory for the troubles of the world bearing down on ordinary people in an age of natural, industrial and economic cataclysms, it taps into pervasive anxiety more acutely than any film since Todd Haynes‘ Safe.
In his second collaboration with Shannon following Shotgun Stories, Nichols has written a role tailored to the actor’s particular gifts in Curtis LaForche. From cinematographer Adam Stone‘s first arresting widescreen view of Curtis standing outside his small-town Ohio home, staring up at an ominous sky as clouds burst and oily rain falls, it’s clear this man has disturbing thoughts on his mind.
He has a loving home life with wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and 6-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who has lost her hearing but is scheduled for corrective surgery. He also has job security as crew manager for a drilling company, working alongside his buddy Dewart (Shea Whigham). Without belaboring the point, however, Nichols reminds us that stability these days hangs on a tenuous thread.
Dreams and hallucinations portending violence increasingly plague Curtis, some of them perhaps even real. From flocks of birds like moving ink stains overhead, to walls of thundering clouds closing in on him, to levitating furniture that comes crashing down, these frightening visions are executed with stunning effectiveness by an ace visual effects team led by Chris Wells.
Keeping his inner turmoil to himself but leaving his wife and colleague to interpret his increasingly irrational and obsessive behavior, Curtis tries sedatives and counseling. During a visit to his mother (Kathy Baker) we learn of her history of paranoid schizophrenia, which causes Curtis to suspect that may be where he’s headed too.
Unable to vanquish his fears, he takes a risky loan and illegally borrows equipment from work to expand the house’s tornado shelter in preparation for the apocalypse.
While Nichols doesn’t stint on powerful dramatic moments, he shows equal command of intimate observations — the tenderness between mother and daughter; the frazzled affections of marriage; the relaxed camaraderie between co-workers; the stiffness between siblings when Curtis’ concerned brother (Ray McKinnon) checks in on him. In Shannon’s single scene with Baker, their cautious channels of communication provide a window into years of painful distance.
Chastain is heartbreaking as a woman wondering if the person she loves has become someone else, her face dissolving into wreckage as Curtis finally explains his fears.
But every performance is of a piece with a film that never wavers in its certainty of tone, its moments of dread and jolts of terror all enhanced by David Wingo‘s brooding score and by a muscular soundscape.
It’s hard to imagine another actor bringing such unblinking conviction to the demanding lead role. One of many gifted stage actors to come out of Chicago, Shannon’s profile has shot up recently with an Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road and a prominent role on Boardwalk Empire.
His characterization grips like a vice as he shifts from softness to menace, stillness to panic, incomprehension to crazed, purposeful illumination. When Curtis explodes and starts prophesying doom to a community hall full of locals, it’s among the film’s most heated moments but also its saddest, played out in the scared, bewildered faces of the people present.
The unsettling final scene is wide open to interpretation. But it’s clear that Nichols is less interested in the last word on Curtis’ sanity than he is in conveying how fear has become an inescapable part of our world, and how family can endure, even in the face of disaster.
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