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Zimbio Review - 'Take Shelter'

Actor Michael Shannon attends the "Take Shelter" New York premiere at the 57th Street Screening Room on November 2, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?


A mesmerizing look at the depths and origins of madness puncuated by an amazing performance by Michael Shannon.
If you don't know the name Jeff Nichols by now, you will soon. The writer/director of 2007's marvelous Shotgun Stories is back with his second feature, Take Shelter. What makes Nichols work so special? Aside from his fearless willingness to probe the darkness that resides in all of us, Nichols has an exceptional talent for crafting an authentic screenplay and realizing it visually with perfect harmony.

Nichols' first two films have been greatly assisted by the work of Michael Shannon. Roger Ebert has correctly called the powerful actor, "the new Christopher Walken." Shannon does have that thing Walken had during the 1970s - overwhelming intensity behind the eyes. Shannon's ability to convey with looks and mannerisms what lesser actors could never do makes him one of the best working today. His immense talent helps along every film he is in, something so rare it should be celebrated gloriously.

Take Shelter is a tale of dread. The film posits questions about life and responsibility, insanity and paranoia, and the limits of love, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Curtis (Shannon) and Samantha (the prolific Jessica Chastain) live in suburban Ohio with their young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. Curtis' friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him one day after work, "You got a good life.. I think that's the best compliment you can give a man, take a look at his life, and say 'that's good.'" Curtis has a good job. Samantha sells her handmade crafts on the weekend, and they live a quiet, peaceful life.

Things change when Curtis starts having vivid dreams so real that he wakes up screaming or gasping for air. These dreams begin with a storm and Curtis is faced with evil in the shape of someone he loves: first his dog, then his best friend, and finally, his wife. The storms symbolize impending doom. Curtis has these dreams and, rationally, looks for their genesis. He checks books out of the library and seeks the help of the local clinic. His mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at Curtis' age and he vistis her, looking for reasons. Soon, Curtis hallucinates people outside his house trying to get in. One magnificent sequence shows Curtis protecting Hannah as he's hallucinating. The living room leaps in front of him and the furniture pauses mid-air as they clutch one another in a corner. Composer David Wingo's eerie score fades in and out of the film, adding a frightening next-level to already ominous scenes.

Nichols also uses CGI to create the storms and the scenes like the floating living room. He understands rule one of special effects: they are story-driven, not the other way around. The storms add another layer to Curtis' grasp on reality. We can see what he does in the distance so we fully understand his dread. No other character can understand. This has a profound effect. Nichols binds us closer to Curtis. There is magic in that.

Despite Curtis' rationale about the reality of his sickness, he cannot help but feel strongly that his dreams and visions mean something. The power of the storms compel him to fix up the old tornado shelter in the family's backyard. Curtis may know he's crazy, but he also has the lucidity to not ignore his own instincts. He loves his family more than anything and, crazy or not, he will protect them at all costs.

The tornado shelter becomes the crux of the film. It costs Curtis his job, his best friend, and the trust of his wife, who is furious with him for taking out a loan to pay for the construction. Curtis finally explodes in an immense scene at a spaghetti dinner where he warns the rest of the town that "a storm is coming and none of you are prepared!!" Shannon is monstrous in this scene, silencing the room, and I'm sure, every audience who will ever watch this film.

Cinematographer Adam Stone's camera watches the spaghetti dinner from a distance, giving the audience full view of the shocked room and the raving lunatic we are so invested in. Nichols' greatest accomplishment is the way he adheres us to Curtis. Whether we are seeing what Curtis sees, or studying Shannon's worrisome expressions and body language, his humanity belies his loosening grip on his sanity and we feel for his every action. Curtis is a classic neo-noir everyman: alone in a quickly maddening world, but prominently, a force of good.

The film ends with a question mark, but an appropriate one. How far will one go to protect one's family? This question has never been more relevant than today. As we've watched the evaporation of the middle-class and the struggles of many Americans just to keep jobs they've had for years, what could be more relevant? Take Shelter is a modern allegory for contemporary America as well as a brilliant study of madness and the forces of nature within us all.

See photos of the Take Shelter cast:
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
  • Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter" New York Premiere
View Michael Shannon Pictures »
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