Take Shelter–Sundance Fest Premiere

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Fest 2011 (Dramatic Competition)–The story of an Everyman traumatized by visions that are either apocalyptic premonitions or evidence of mental disorder, Jeff Nichols’ absorbing and impressively made second feature “Take Shelter” has a daunting cumulative power and eerie suggestiveness.

Typical of many second features, Nichols overreaches at times and the narrative rhythm is not always fluid. The early passages have a irregular move and slightly overemphatic touch. These are minor qualms in a work grounded by an exquisitely detailed and anguished central performance by Michael Shannon.

Nichols and Shannon collaborated on the filmmaker’s superb and undeservedly obscure debut “Shotgun Stories,” a meditative work on violence and its aftermath in relating a story of an explosive blood feud between two sets of half-brothers. That film had a coiled rhythm and spare intensity.

The new film unfolds on a far greater scale, animated by some truly eerie and breathtaking visual effects by the production company Hydraulx. Cinematographer Adam Stone, who shot Nichols’s first feature, uses the widescreen frame in continuously inventive ways, not necessarily to expand the frame and depth of field but concentrate and intensity the action.

Nichols and his two superb lead actors, Shannon and Jessica Chastain, negotiate the different physical scale. In moving comfortably between landscapes seemingly possessed of a supernatural menace to claustrophobic and enclosed spaces, Nichols creates a spellbinding psychological horror.

Best of all, Nichols refuses to allegorize the story and make it a grand statement about the state of world. Instead, he turns the material inward and makes it very much about one man and his family. He leaves it continually open whether his protagonist is a some kind of prophet, delusional or something in between.

Curtis (Shannon), a construction foreman who specializes in digging and excavation sites, lives with his attractive wife Samantha (Chastain) and their precociously beautiful hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), near Oberlin, Ohio. The opening is like “Macbeth,“ or “King Lear,“ a portent of disorder and breakdown, with a staggeringly ominous storm that releases a strange and mysterious mother oil-like substance from the sky.

From that point, Curtis is plagued by a series of visions and nightmares depicting extreme personal harm, being attacked by his dog in his backyard, unexplained people that hover in the distance or a car crash that nearly takes the life of his daughter.

He consults a doctor, though delays his suggestion of seeking psychological help from a specialist. After Curtis enjoys temporary relief through medication, the dreams return with a vengeance. Most disturbingly the dreams appear linked to physical manifestation of pain and the breakdown of the body, leading to a series of work-related hallucinations, like a bizarre bird formation or unexplainable sounds that seriously impair his ability to perform on the job.

The severity and detail of the destruction pushes Curtis to a series of increasingly bizarre acts, isolating the dog behind a chain link fence and most significantly, transforming the storm shelter in his backyard into an elaborate underground bunker. His suspicious and clandestine behavior, done without his wife’s knowledge or consent, strains his marriage and complicates his friendships and professional responsibilities.

Trapped between moments of panic and lucidity, Curtis visits his mother (Kathy Baker). The fragile woman’s allusion to past traumas is confirmed by his subsequent visit with a mental health counselor (Lisa Gay Hamilton). During the meeting, Curtis reveals as a 10-year-old boy, his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In a heart stopping sequence, Curtis voices his deep concern and suspicion of the possibility he is stricken with some variant of the same disease.

If “Shotgun Stories” poetically illustrated violence as inherited behavior passed down from generation to generation, “Take Shelter” is more abstracted and ineffable. The fear, dread and sense of annihilation is made pervasive by the very absence of the rationale and explainable. “Is anybody else seeing this,” Curtis asks during a startling electric storm at night, his wife and daughter asleep in the car.

As Curtis unravels, alienating his friends and arousing suspicion in his tight-knit community, the movie develops a transformative power in the elegantly cruel way it dances between the two extreme possibilities that Curtis is either a savant or mad. At his best, Shannon is like a unstable equivalent of Henry Fonda, the seemingly placid and good-natured man whose laconic ease masks a dangerously unpredictable side.

Though he has one explosive public encounter, Shannon’s performance is muted and restrained physically. He is capable of going either way, and he makes palpable the certainty of his convictions, however terrifying in their implications. With her red hair and fine features, Chastain makes a nice physical counterpoint to Shannon; she has a direct, sharp manner that colors and deepens her character.

Nichols also bridges the unknown with some narrative details, like Curtis’s refusal to attend church, the death of his father, the rivalry with his brother, as a gateway to understand behavior and action. Finally, he allows multiple ways to consider and evaluate the material. It ends, like it began, with a haunting vision that tantalizingly is either a justification of Curtis’s behavior or further evidence of mental deterioration.

“Take Shelter” is an ambiguous movie to see and argue about.

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