Saturday, 4 February 2012

“I cannot describe it; I just need you to believe”

Take Shelter: directed and written by Jeff Nichols

If I were to attempt a delineated breakdown of the things which amount to the film that is Take Shelter, taking into consideration its thematic strictures, its style and its overtones I suppose that I might technically have a film which I might like but not wholly love. For example, if analysed in retrospect there is much that might indicate that Take Shelter depends on something akin to a cinematic ruse leading the audience to a specific point and then leaving them with a paucity of answers and a particularly exasperation inducing question. Yet, with all these technical things seemingly working against them, at least in the respect of me appreciating it, Take Shelter manages to be one of the finest film achievements of the year. It’s difficult to unearth specificities in its developments which reveal it as a necessary film to peruse, but I shall try.

Everything about Take Shelter is designed to exist as a provocative incident meant to incur a response in the audience. This provocative hubris is less in line with the cerebral provocative issues at the helm of, say, A Separation and more in the vein of a horror film designed to jar your thoughts consistently over a series of scenes. It opens with a title-card indicating that this is a “Strange Matters Production” (a curiously apt title—card considering what we shall soon experience). Then, we’re given the name [T A K E    S H E L T E R], functioning almost like an order inasmuch as the title of the film for then the film immediately to blowing winds, a pensive Michael Shannon (Curtis, our protagonist) observing the quickly darkening skies immediately followed by a downpour of…rain? Not quite. Something bright gold? Oil, perhaps? Curtis studies it. He’s confused, so are we when the scene switches immediately to water in the shower. Was it a dream? A distorted memory? A projection? We’ll come to realise that Curtis is plagued by a succession of increasingly disturbing dreams, each of them seeming to point to incidents that seem vaguely apocalyptic. He’s disturbed by them, but not the dreams specifically – by the authenticity with which they seem to occur, and by the trauma he feels in their aftermath.

It’d be hard enough as a man dealing with such dire psychological issue alone. But, Curtis’ life is already hanging on a precipice (although it’s not obtrusively established). He’s the main breadwinner in his very normal small-town family, and his deaf daughter is on the brink of betting an operation to help her hearing which hinges (but, thankfully, not presented as some nail-biting quandary) on his work insurance policy. The dreams don’t care, though. They keep coming. And with Curtis, and his inclinations, palpably in control of the story being told to us the manner in which the dreams pour out of Curtis unimpeded with little discernible difference between them and the real world which he inhabits allows Nichols to prevent the audience from having the luxury of discerning which is which either. When the dreams come we know in our guts that they’re not authentic, yet they unfold so realistically that Nichols force us – like Curtis – to extrapolate the real from the imagined. Even though we learn of a potential psychosis which casts doubts on the legitimacy of Curtis’ soundness of mind somewhere in the second act, the film (told with a deceptively not-insular focus on Curtis) gives us such wide latitude into his inclinations as a protagonist that we’re loathe to doubt the legitimacy of his reactions to the world around him.

Back to that revelation, though. It’s another standard movie conceit that in theory annoys me in that it has a pesky tendency to appear leaving the viewer with an either/or situation that’s really unfulfilling – especially when you know you won’t be helped to an answer, not one bit. And it would be exasperating if Take Shelter focused on its standard horror elements (excellently put, to work, mind you – that’s not meant to read as a knock to horror fans) because we’d be left spooked but frustrated because this is a story which has it’s strongest tendons in its humane aspects. I shall not, of course, spoil the potentially tetchy ending which is a question mark and yet an answer. It sets up a whole new dilemma, or maybe extends on the same ones. But, where the abruptness in Martha Marcy May Marlene feels decidedly flippant (incidentally, both films are interested in the divide of someone maybe-maybe not losing their minds, trying to reach out only to pull back) Take Shelter ends with an abruptness that’s not jarring where the focus is not specifically on the visual but on the same aforementioned humane aspect. I’m paying more attention to what is said, and how, than at what’s “coming” – Nichols knows his characters inside out, and he has sympathy for them, something that’s not to be shirked at in stories like this which could come off as maddeningly sensational.

It’s one that’s rich in subtext, the myriad of which I couldn’t possibly do justice to – some of which I’m not even sure I fully grasp. Does the film overstate the potential schizophrenia? It’s a difficult question to assess, especially since we’re not exactly sure he has it. I’m more curious as to the purpose of Hannah’s deafness, which could point to so many things. Her mother notes how she’s cut off from the other children, and I can’t help but wonder of the good and bad implications of living in a bubble. This of course, reinforces the issue of Curtis’ family adding to the already disturbing possibility of mental deterioration. But, the film hardly approaches this is in a miserable manner. The reaffirming “we’ll get through this together” of the story is a beautiful note it plays often, but not overbearingly and in film’s single scene which possibly plays it too loud (the luncheon), the payoff is such a beautiful image of a family standing together that I couldn’t possibly feel bad about it.

It makes sense, then, that Chastain and Shannon are so excellent here. I sort of feel that Nichols script is so good it would have given ANY two actors the chance to be excellent. But, why on earth praise an actor for finding greatness in a substandard script and ignore the actors who achieve the same from a great script? And, then, there are nuances which the script couldn’t possibly have suggested. Chastain’s final words (and those of the film) are uttered so eerily calm it sort of makes me go cold, or the earnestness of Shannon signing to his daughter as he prepares to leave that cave. It’s superlative work from both parties, and easily my favourite for each.
A co-worker and I were pondering on the name. Obviously, its literal meaning points to the coming storm. But there’s more. There must be. Is it a sign to gird your loins? Is it a suggestion to prepare? Is it an idiom for finding your allies? I like that last one, it has a mass of things going on (a host of which I did not touch on, here) but I like to think of it as a suggestion to take shelter in loved ones. Samantha might be a supportive wife, but it’s not something to shirk at. I think Nichols’ most decisive point is the importance of community. Even if it’s a community of two (or three, if you include their child).



Jose Solís said...

Andrew, you are right about the film not overplaying its horror themes. Like you I found myself not giving a damn about whether the dreams were true or not, as to the way in which Curtis reacted to them. Shannon is extraordinary and ugh Chastain...the last words! Can someone please just go ahead and canonize her already?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

jose i'm so used to shannon playing densely heavy and vaguely psychotic roles i was so surprised by how young and real he looked. the performance is a marvel. and, yes, chastain must be canonised.

Dan O. said...

Great film and I'm definitely a little ticked off that Shannon didn't at least get a nomination for his work here but hopefully there will be more of him. Good review man.