People call awards season the feel bad months of film. This year, they may have a point. Whether it be the looming planet of death in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, or the cyclical creation and destruction of the world in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the 2012 Oscar race seems not only concerned with the usual griefs, but more so with the ultimate end: the destruction of the world. Jeff Nichols’ remarkable Take Shelter is no exception.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter tells the story of construction worker Curtis (the astonishing Michael Shannon), his quietly strong wife Samantha (the omnipresent Jessica Chastain), and their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). The family lives modestly in Northern Ohio. In their own way, Curtis and his family have achieved the American dream; they earn a decent living that allows them good health benefits, some vacation time at the beach, and a possibly life-changing surgery for their deaf child. Their home is small but well maintained. They are accepting of their hardships and happy with each other. The mere thought of losing this unassumingly fulfilling life proves to be enough to push Curtis over the edge.
Curtis, whose mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, begins to have apocalyptic dreams so horrific and scarring that he feels their torments hours after he wakes. All of them involve a great storm that threaten the earth’s survival and ultimately set humans against each other. Curtis tries to protect himself and his child, but the illusions of the dreams torment him during the waking hours too; there is no protection from his own mind. Soon his fears of the catastrophic flood overtake his life. Curtis and we, the audience, are left to question if these visions of the End are delusions or premonitions.
Take Shelter is through and through an affecting and deeply unsettling film. Lead by the simply perfect performance by Michael Shannon, this film is so appropriately cast and their world so authentic and familiar, the horrors of Curtis’s nightmares, though far-fetched and melodramatic, seem deeply possible. Like The Blair Witch Project, Take Shelter understands the terror in the possible and uses this tool as a weapon against the audience’s comfort. We are never fully at ease watching Curtis build a pen for his dog, eat supper with his family, or visit the library for information on mental illness. There is something not right in this world, and Curtis and the audience sense it intrinsically.
Shannon’s portrayal of Curtis is so monstrously inept at speaking, opening, and allowing himself to admit his fears and delusions, he operates as a pot close to boil. We feel with every thunderous nightmare, pricey gas mask, and work set-back as if at any moment he will blow. Shannon is so effective at keeping the audience hanging on every lift of his eyebrow, slight quiver of his lip, and mild stutter of a response. He is a scene stealer in every right and absolutely blows this movie out of the water. His performance has once again proven to me what I have known since his horrendously unfair loss at the 2009 Academy Awards for his stunning performance in Revolutionary Road; Michael Shannon is one of the most talented and underrated actors of our generation. It is an absolute travesty that he did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for this performance. As much as I love Ryan Gosling and his abs, his performance in The Ides of March was child’s play in comparison to Shannon’s absolute mastery. Shannon must win an Oscar for this; Jean Dujardin, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt be damned.
Jessica Chastain had much quieter work to be done in this film, and it is a testament to her incredible skill that she is able to rival Michael Shannon in such a small, understated role. Again, it is a travesty that her performance in the disturbingly overrated The Help earned her a Golden Globe nomination over this fine performance. The Hollywood Foreign Press don’t know what’s up, let me tell you.
As far as its Oscar future goes, I hate to say it but it looks pretty bleak. This is the type of movie that turns me into the Oscar a hole; I’m going to get stark, raving mad if it gets overlooked and start ranting about how close-minded the Academy is. Although it rightfully won the Grand Prize at the Critics Week competition at Cannes, Take Shelter has been shut out of both the SAG and Golden Globe nominations, a.k.a. the mainstreams. It’s not looking so good for O Day. In my opinion, Michael Shannon’s performance is so much more powerful, thoughtful and skillful than Clooney’s, Pitt’s, Dujardin’s, Gosling’s, or DiCaprio’s. His name doesn’t have the star power necessary to evoke the red carpet flash bulbs, so he’s being overlooked. All I can say is please go see it for yourselves. Free your mind and the rest will follow.
Did you see Take Shelter? Are you planning on it? Drop me a line in the comment section.