Sunday, December 4, 2011

Flick of The Day: Take Shelter

The old Hollywood adage goes that the best way to win an Oscar is to make a film about somebody with a disability or illness. It is indeed a well forged path to fame and fortune though it has to be said rarely gave these films dealt with something like mental illness in a realistic and grown up manner. As enjoyable as films like A Beautiful Mind and Shine were, there was a real lack of authenticity in their portrayal of the difficulties mental illness causes. It is a pleasure then to see a film that is written  in an authoritative manner with a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a man pushed to the edge by his mind. Today's flick of the day is Take Shelter.
Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a hard working family man from rural Ohio. He lives a typically banal existence with his wife and young deaf daughter in a small house on the outskirts of town. Curtis works for a gravel company and his life would be otherwise unremarkable until one day he begins to suffer increasingly terrifying dreams. These portents of doom take the form of a huge storm and his various friends, family and even his dog attacking him. The visions gradually become apocalyptic in nature as the skies rain oil and black birds fill the sky. Curtis seeks  help from his local doctor while keeping it from his wife and we learn that as a child his mother was hospitalised for schizophrenia. His nightmares comes to dominate his life and he becomes obsessed with extending and provisioning the storm shelter in his back garden. Gradually his life breaks down and we begin to question whether Curtis is himself suffering from schizophrenia or indeed a prophet of doom. Will the storm come?
Shannon has quietly built a career over the past few years combining scene stealing turns in films like Revolutionary Road and  Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans with small roles in blockbusters and recently as Agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO's Boardwalk Empire. He is gradually becoming one of the great character actors working today and his role as the troubled Curtis is his best work to date. He brings a taciturn dignity to Curtis which makes his gradual disintegration all the more compelling and heartbreaking. Fundamentally a good man, you begin to realise that there are only two outcomes to his story. Either he is suffering from debilitating mental illness of the apocalypse really is coming. We are not headed for a happy ending obviously. It is the desperation in his eyes that means you can't look away, he doesn't want to be ill and yet doesn't want to abandon his family for the safety of an institution like his mother did. 
While Shannon carries the film as the central character, plaudits must also go to Jessica Chastain for her realistic portrayal of his loving wife. As Curtis crumbles she tries to hold things together and to get Curtis help. There is a real depth and humanity to her portrayal.

Curtis: You think I'm crazy? Well, listen up, there's a storm coming like nothing you've ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it

Jeff Nichols direction brings the whole story together by creating a sense of impending doom as the film closes in on you. His execution of the nightmarish sequences is worthy of some praise as they are genuinely unsettling. As the film moves toward its dread filled denouement, Nichols ratchets up the tension and the storm clouds gather on the horizon.
This ending when it comes  is ambiguous at best though I found it a satisfying finale given what has come before. Without giving anything away, it would be fair to say that the ending is significant for leaving us, the audience to draw our own conclusions. Given the abrupt cuts from dreams to reality previously, this is an unusual move but a good one. Overall a fine film and one sure to be a winner at awards season if there is any justice. Thought provoking and well acted throughout, this is the perfect antidote to the asinine fare so often served up by American cinema.

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