Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Take Shelter (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 

 Take Shelter

It's almost 2012 and given the economy, job instability,  political divisiveness and global warming, I know that many  doom in-the-afternoon films are in vogue and may be around for quite some time.  The latest of these is "Take Shelter" directed by  Indie director Jeff Nichols, known for his 2007 film "Shotgun Stories" about half brothers dealing with the death of a father. 

In that film as in this one, Nichols wisely put actor Michael Shannon in the starring role.
In "Take Shelter" Shannon plays an  earnest and forthright road worker who is also a husband and an affectionate dad to his hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Things are peachy keen for the first few minutes of the film and then Curtis has a series of very bizarre and visceral dreams, notable for their sudden violent impact. The dream sequences, although eerie, jolting and well rendered---including hundreds of birds that fly and drift in synchronicity creating huge black ribbons in the sky--- seem a bit like leftover cues from an M. Night Shyamalan film. 

The real draw here is Michael Shannon, who portrays torment on screen so well that he recalls the immediacy of Lon Chaney Jr in  "The Wolfman" and Gregory Peck in Hitchcock's "Spellbound". Shannon forms  his emotion  into a character on film. Time weighs on his face.  

Although he is unique unto himself, Shannon shares this quality with Willem Defoe and Christopher Walken. The pain Shannon's Curtis  feels is palpable and sincere, even Christ-like. As he searches the sky for doom, Curtis is like an extraterrestrial who has lost his craft. It is also worth noting that after Curtis wakes up from a "dream", numerous characters mention the current bad economy. So it is. Just as in this year's film "Contagion", external struggles are a metaphor for economic collapse. Curtis becomes a one man army.

Jessica Chastain does well as Curtis' wife Samantha. She is strong-willed, resolute and always seems to do right. She forces Curtis to face his own personal devils. Both Shannon and Chastain play their somewhat Gothic circumstances relatively straight and the film succeeds best in its mostly objective portrayal of mental illness. 

This family loves one another despite their tribulations, that much is clear. Samantha and Curtis have an easy convincing chemistry.

But when the film moves into dream territory, it loses drive.  The effects although doomsday accurate and foreboding are  the stuff of M. Night Shyamalan's derivative daydreams. We've seen such frights before. Lars von Trier despite his cringeworthy status in being the director that you never want to invite to a party, does it ever so much better. It is far more effective to not show what we fear the most, and to turn horrible angst into a soft aria rather than a Saturday Matinee shocker.

By the end of "Take Shelter", I thought I was watching a special apocryphal edition of "The X-Files". Doomsday is fine  but spare me the blackbirds, the twisting funnel clouds and the shredding lightning. After the onslaught of "The Seventh Sign", "The Reaping" , "Signs" and "2012" this particular visual vocabulary has overstayed its welcome on my calendar. This was overkill. 

A damn shame. All it takes for me to be a Believer in film is a good character study.

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