Sunday, April 29, 2012

EbertFest Dispatch #5: Take Shelter

I first noticed Michael Shannon in the movie 'Bug', which was marketed as a horror movie but is really much scarier than that. His performance was profoundly disturbing, so much so that I find it difficult to watch him in anything without feeling uneasy.

In both that film and this one, Shannon is contending with irrational fears of things that we are fairly certain are products of his own mind. But while that earlier character surrendered to those fears, in 'Take Shelter' he plays a man fully aware of what is happening and fighting desperately to keep his sanity.

Shannon plays Curtis, a loving husband and father, with a good job that he really needs to hang onto in these uncertain economic times. He has a happy, ordinary life, until he is plagued by ominous dreams about violent storms and attacks by shadowy figures. When these dreams start to intrude on his waking life, he begins to understand that something is terribly wrong.

During the Q&A after the film, director Jeff Nichols said that he considers this to be a movie about a marriage. And so it is, although not until well into the film. Before that, Curtis does his best to deal with his unraveling mind alone. He approaches his situation clinically, taking out books on mental illness from the library, seeking help from his family doctor and later a therapist. But his wife he keeps in the dark. Is this to protect her, or does he fear the loss of her normalizing influence?

Eventually his wife does learn the truth, and when Curtis' increasingly erratic behaviour begins to damage their financial situation, she takes charge in a way that is both admirable and unexpected. In any other movie she might have fled, but instead she insists that they confront this bizarre situation together.

Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to cram a lot into one movie. He's talking about marriage, commitment, mental illness, anxiety both personal and societal, economic injustice, even throwing in a subtle comment about the environmental crisis. It mostly works, although once in a while one of those themes will poke out awkwardly like a sock out of an overstuffed suitcase.

Still, the overall effect is devastating. It's one of those movies that leaves you thinking and talking about it long after the final credits.

And for the record, Michael Shannon is just as odd in person as he appears in his films. Or so he would have us believe.

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