REVIEW: Take Shelter Raises the Question, How Much Michael Shannon Is Too Much?
Casting Michael Shannon as a potential psychotic is a bit like crowing over the discovery that water is wet. And sure enough, in Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter, Shannon gets his chance to go all bug-eyed and thin-lipped, to sweat through his clothes, to go ballistic on the neighbors, warning them that a big storm is coming and it's going to wipe them out if they don't get ready.
Shannon has certainly cornered the cuckoo-bird market, and how you feel about Take Shelter will depend largely on how you respond to his patented nutcase technique. But in terms of overall filmmaking, writer-director Nichols -- who previously made the 2007 Shotgun Stories -- knows what he's doing. He's so adept at layering eerie semi-naturalistic details -- skies that seem to be glowering at the whole human race, rain beating down with the fury of millions of tiny, punishing fists -- that I wanted to stick with him to see where he was going with it all. His idea -- that nature is both inside and outside of us, and in neither case is it something to trifle with -- is unsettling at its core. Shannon is precisely the actor you'd first think to cast in this material -- which may be the problem.
Shannon's character, a hardworking Midwestern family man named Curtis, has been having apocalyptic dreams and visions: Birds arrange themselves strange formations in the sky; yellow rain falls from above, as if God were expressing his dissatisfaction with mankind by taking one giant whiz all over the heartland. Is all of this really happening? Or is Curtis suffering the early stages of paranoid schizophrenia? His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is baffled by his behavior: First he turns the gentle, loyal family dog outside after dreaming that the dog attacks him; then he takes out a massive loan to spiff up the family's tornado shelter in preparation for the big biblical showdown he knows is coming. Samantha is none too happy about either of those things, particularly the latter, considering the couple's young daughter (Tova Stewart), who is deaf, has some upcoming heavy-duty medical expenses.
The first third of Take Shelter is suitably unnerving. Nichols knows how to use the landscape (and CGI-enhanced weather) to build a sense of dread: The family's modest house, somewhere out in rural Ohio, ought to be cozy and safe, but it seems isolated and exposed, a sitting target in an expanse of brownish grass and grayish sky. Even the more peaceful sequences -- like the one in which Samantha and her young daughter gaze out the window while a rainstorm rages outside -- are draped with ominous portent.
But I can't help wondering how Take Shelter would play with a different star, one who hasn't already done the pop-eyed nutter routine to death. With Shannon, I feel I've seen it too many times before, and once -- even just his turn in William Friedkin's Bug -- would have been more than enough. The economics of star casting aside, what would Take Shelter have been like with James McAvoy or Mark Wahlberg or Jake Gyllenhaal at its center? Even though the picture ends with a question mark, Shannon still manages to give the whole game away in the first frame -- his very presence shows you where the movie is headed.
On the other hand, Jessica Chastain, in one of her 1,001 movie roles this year, is far more restrained and more moving. She plays a character whose common sense is commingled with fear -- and that, as it turns out, is probably the combination she needs to survive. Chastain is this year's "it" girl for sure, but one of her gifts is her ability to portray regular people without playing down to them: In Take Shelter you never get the sense that she's uglied herself up to play real folk, to get down with the people. She's always effortlessly believable, whether her character is hustling in the kitchen to get breakfast together for her daughter or gazing into her husband's eyes, trying to fathom the weird secrets he has locked in his cranium. Chastain's face, whether she's expressing wonder or anxiety, is the movie's most reliable weather report and its most sensitive lightning rod: Looking at that face, you'd have no reason to believe that either God or his good pal Mother Nature could be angry with her. The suggestion that not even she can escape their wrath is what makes Take Shelter so disquieting.
[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.]