Michael Shannon, a Kentucky-born character actor who has carved a niche for himself in heavy dramatic roles, usually playing key supporting roles. The last few years though, his star has risen, including a large part in HBO's Boardwalk Empire and a starring role in 2011's Take Shelter, a part that should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Living with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), hard-working Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a loving, caring father who has quite a life built up around him. He's got a solid job, a loving family and leads a good life. Curtis though has started to seeing things. He has hallucinations and wakes up in a sweat at night because of vivid, very real dreams he's had. Everything points to something major happening in the future, a storm of epic proportions unlike anything the world has seen, or so Curtis thinks. He starts acting oddly, questioning what is to come. Are Curtis' dreams visions, a predictor of the future? Or is his family bloodlines passing along the paranoid schizophrenia that his mother had?
Being a small-scale, low budget movie that did well through the Festival circuit with all sorts of critical acclaim but no major release, the only reason I was aware of 'Shelter' was a trailer preview on a DVD. The trailer immediately caught my attention, and I'm glad I sought it out at Netflix. From writer and director Jeff Nichols, this is an intimate, very personal and small scale story that hits almost all the right notes. It has a feel of small town and middle class America that feels authentic. Art house film? Indie film? Or more straightforward? I think in an odd way, it works on all three levels. It isn't a straight drama. It doesn't try to deliver a profound message. Somehow, it just works.
The biggest reason for its success is the acting, especially Shannon and Chastain. Shannon becomes the Curtis character, a husband and father in his 30s who should be happy and carefree. His mother (Kathy Baker) though was diagnosed in her mid 30s with schizophrenia, causing Curtis to question if he's going down the same road. Shannon underplays the role, a man torn up inside about what he's become but rarely showing outward emotion. Shannon does a pained, tortured look like nobody's business. He's going to solve it on his own and doesn't want anyone -- even his loving wife -- to try and help. Curtis intends it in a positive fashion, trying to protect her, but it's easy to see why she doesn't feel that way. The Queen of 2011, Chastain is similarly excellent as Samantha. Skeptical, suspicious and questioning, she wants what's best for her husband, but he won't allow her to help.
Other parts include Dewart (Shea Wigham), Curtis' best friend and co-worker, Nat (Katy Mixon), Dewart's wife and Samantha's close friend by association, Ray McKinnon as Kyle, Curtis' worried and possibly estranged brother, and young Stewart as Hannah is solid in a background but essential part.
This is a personal, dramatic story that is supposed to unsettle you to a point. The trailer does a hell of a job establishing that. The musical score from composer David Wingo goes a long way, an eerie, ethereal score that looms and hangs over the story. I can't place the sound, but moral of the story? It works in a big way. Listen to part of it HERE. Everything about the script, the acting, and the visuals points to an impending doom. The shots of raging storms -- thunder and lightning, odd natural occurrences -- are a sight to behold, majestic and beautiful in a way where something can frighten and impress at the same time. Curtis' dreams especially stand out; intense and truly frightening in a way that horror movies should and could hope to replicate. From the first scene to the last, we're questioning what it all means. Where is it heading? What's the resolution? In that sense, it has the feel of a longer episode of The Twilight Zone.
Which brings us to the ending. It's the type of movie you know the ending is going to either make or break the story. Does it all come together or does it sink like a rock? Without giving anything specific away, I can say that it is an ambiguous ending that allows for viewer interpretation. I wrapped my head around it one way, and I'm cool with it. Did I love that ending? No, I would have ended it about 5 minutes earlier at a natural and very moving conclusion. Does it work? That's probably up to you and your interpretation. However you interpret it, I think it works. Just pick your best option. No matter how it's interpreted though, it is a beautiful, startling final shot that can certainly open the door for debate.
The movie on a whole isn't perfect. It struggles to sustain momentum at some points, ending up at 121 minutes. Some scenes feel like a little work in the editing department could have been used. At the same time, that's part of the appeal of the movie. The camera work allows for long, extended shots, beautifully choreographed shots that aid that unsettling feeling that develops. Some minor issues aside with pacing, the movie is an easy one to recommend. Smart, well-made, well-acted and a visually interesting movie to watch...and smart. Yes, I pointed it out twice. It's a rare thing in movies these days. Enjoy it.
Take Shelter <---trailer (2011): ***/****