Michael Shannon is in my opinion the best character actor working today, whether he is playing a prohibition era ultra-conservative police officer in Boardwalk Empire or the maniac in Bug. He is a man that can immediately steal as scene and drench it in intensity with just a look. It is refreshing to see him front and center in the lead role of Jeff Nichol's new film "Take Shelter" which premiered at the Eccles earlier this afternoon.
Take Shelter follows Curtis (Shannon) a heavy equipment operator from Ohio who lately is plagued with dreams every night warning him of apocalyptic level danger heading his way soon. Things in these dreams range from a terrible storm with brooding clouds, tornados, zombie-like people attacking his family, floating chairs, and car crashes. Convinced these manifestations are real warnings, Curtis goes about preparing by building the best shelter possible to save him and his family from this oncoming calamity. Naturally, his wife, friends, and coworkers start to worry about Curtis's mental state. Which is even more complicated by the fact that his family has a history of paranoid schizophrenia manifesting around his age.
This film blew me away starting from it's opening shot, they drafted the special effects company that did "Skyline" to handle the apocalyptic imagery and they really knocked it out of the park. There are shots in the film that you would ordinarily only expect to see in a 20+ million dollar hollywood production, but somehow are perfect in this 1-2 million dollar independent film. The cgi clouds really become a character themselves in the film, brooding in the background increasing as Curtis's paranoia shifts further and further. Those effects mix perfectly with DP Adam Stone's (Great World of Sound) dark intense look at Ohio.
Just as much as the film is about a man trying retain his own sanity, the real "glue" keeping the film together is story of a man and his wife trying to understand and love each other in the most insane and bizarre of situations. Curtis's wife is played by a woman named Jessica Chastain, who might be a name that some have heard as she is the one of the leads in Tree of Life. Take Shelter was my first chance to see her work and it really is no wonder that Malick is working with her, in Shelter she delivers a very naturalistic and sweet performance.
Every member of the supporting cast is really top notch. Shannon's Boardwalk Empire cohort Shea Whigham is Curtis's best friend and work partner, Katy Mixon (Eastbound and Down) plays his wife. Also in a very somber moment Ray Mckinnon pops up as Curtis's brother late in the picture and they have one of the most memorable exchanges in the picture as Mckinnon is worried about his brother going crazy and Curtis is worried about how his brother may also fair in the coming storm.
I have to admit at a couple of moments the film lost me, it's hard not to feel repetitive and lifetime'y in any film about a lead character overcoming a medical affliction. Although every single one of those lifetime'y moments are earned and build to something much more in the framework of the film. By the end of the film it won me over immensely. Whereas several endings of films at this year's festival have left me wanting something more, this one totally blindsided me and is absolutely pitch perfect. I won't discuss it further, because it's impossible without completely spoiling it.
Take Shelter really establishes Jeff Nichols as an immense new talent to look out for. It's hard to really describe the picture in short to people, if I had to try to sum it up in a few words, I'd say it's Evan Almighty as if directed by Roman Polanski. I think the film is perfect and I can't wait to discuss it with everyone at the festival as the week goes on. Sony Classic's bought it prior to the festival, so they should be releasing later this year, and may be even pushing Michael Shannon for a best actor Oscar this time next year.
Jarrette / Rav