Take Shelter (2011)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm torn. I'm torn, disappointed and a little insulted by Jeff Nichols' ending to his film Take Shelter. A movie that for 99% of its running time is nearly perfect; a consummate filmatic experience evoking my entire emotional register and at the same time giving my often under-stimulated brain more than enough food for thought. I'm not attributing this under-stimulation to me being some kind of genius, but rather to the simple fact that most films aren't very ambitious these days. Take Shelter is a warmly welcomed diametric opposite of that allegation, and it is probably the best portrayal of mental illness I have ever seen onscreen. Or, I should say, alleged mental illness. Because ultimately writer/director Nichols gives us a bail-out ending which undermines what he has been trying to say or accomplish with his film. I realize he is aiming for ambiguity to propel his cataclysmic allegory, but that doesn't do it for me. Maybe it's because I'm not a great believer in the supernatural, or maybe I'm just not pessimistic enough.
Curtis LaForche is a simple family man trying to make ends meet and take care of his wife and hearing-impaired daughter. One night he has a disturbing dream in which a storm builds up and his dog attacks him. He feels the pain in his arm the entire following day. His dreams continue to haunt him, the storm ever-present, accompanied by different people in his life being ominous and acting aggressively towards him. He starts to cut people off, isolate himself, and ultimately decides to expand the storm-shelter in his backyard. At the same time, he tries to map down whether his own changes match the changes his paranoid schizophrenic mother went through when she became mentally ill around the same age as he is now.
Since my objections to Take Shelter only pertain to about 1% of the film's running time, I'm not going to focus on them for the rest of my review. I've stated my opinion about the ending, and I feel fairly certain that this is an issue that will divide viewers; either you accept it or you don't. What nobody can deny, however, is Michael Shannon's remarkably powerful performance as Curtis LaForche, and the immaculate character study it presents, regardless of your interpretation of him. The depth and strength of Shannon's performance is reminiscent of Michael Fassbender's work in Shame, another of 2011's best performances. Shannon and Fassbender have in recent years demonstrated their impeccable talent for portraying mental undercurrents; both seem quite placid on the surface while desperately trying to control whatever is simmering underneath. Watch Shannon in this film or Revolutionary Road or Fassbender in the aforementioned Shame or A Dangerous Method to see what I mean.
The way he slowly intensifies the conundrum, the way Curtis' struggle and the anomality of it is contrasted against the perfectly trivial daily-life of his family, friends and small-town existence, and the way the battle against perceived insanity is portrayed, both on the inside and on the outside, proves that Jeff Nichols are among the most talented directors around today, perhaps one of few truly auteuristic ones. In many ways his work here reminds me of what Lars von Trier tries to do - only Nichols demonstrates that he understands people. So because I want as many people as possible to see this talent and to experience the greatness of what he unquestionably does achieve with Take Shelter, I'm rating the film highly. And I'm also rating it highly because I love film as a medium. I'll even go as far as saying that I hope others will view it with a less fixed worldview, which will hamper their perception of the film less than mine did for me. I'm looking forward to seeing it again some day. In the meantime I'll conclude that Take Shelter is one of the most riveting films of the year.