Friday, March 2, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Title: Take Shelter (2012)

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart


The final frames in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) are composed of a young man wearing his headphones, listening to his music as he looks up at the stormy sky, at the unrelenting storm that is undoubtedly on its way. The symbolism attached to these scenes comment on how ugly times are awaiting humanity in the near future. That things are going to get a hell of a lot worse before they get better, and that its something palpable, something we can see coming with our own eyes, just ahead in the near future. Taking in consideration the political, social and economical climate that’s growing in the world, one can’t help but agree with the visual metaphors on A Serious Man. I sometimes feel like humanity is headed towards some kind of cataclysmic socio political event that will affect us all. Take Shelter takes that idea of “the coming storm” and explores it by focusing on the typical middle class American family; the middle class being one of the few things that’s presently under attack by the ever growing economical woes of our world. It seems we are headed towards a world in which you will either be rich or poor. There’s no space for in between. Will all things continue getting bleaker in the world? Is there a light at the end of this dark tunnel? Will the storm ever fade away?

The film focuses on Curtis; your every day common man. He has his job, a house in the country, a loving wife and a beautiful daughter, basically Curtis is living “the good life”. But Curtis is having these nightmares that he takes as premonitions, nightmares about the end of the world. In his dreams, storm clouds form, thunder cracks the skies violently, and everything seems dreadful, sad and ominous; an overall aura of dread is felt in his dreamscapes. Are his dreams going to become a reality? Curtis fears he is going crazy because his mother suffers from schizophrenia, but is he really going crazy? Or are things looking bleaker and bleaker in the world?

So this is the kind of filmmaking I love, the kind that speaks about the world we live in. The kind that speaks for us and materializes feelings that are often times left unspoken. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that over the last decade or so we have seen the world shift violently. Suddenly, everything is three times more expensive, suddenly; it’s not so easy to live your life. Filling up the gas tank on your car used to be a 20 dollar affair, now it’s a 50 dollar one. And let’s not even go into medical bills! A trip to the pharmacy can be a nightmare if you have no medical insurance. I personally know some people who don’t bother going to the doctor even though they have serious physical illness just because they cant afford it! Is this the kind of world we are living in? I remember the day I noticed everything was going to the crapper. I was at the mall and this little girl walked up to me and asked me for some money to eat, her mother just a few feet away with her other two kids, who were probably hungry as well. Yeah the world has gone to hell…true, and Take Shelter is a film that captures that feeling perfectly, subtly. Curtis can’t visit a doctor because it’s too far and too expensive; when he goes to the pharmacy he is surprised at how much he has to pay for pills even though he is insured! I mean, these situations will feel all too familiar to anyone living in our modern world.  

What I loved about the film is how it explores the psyche of the “regular Joe” and how it is affected by the ever growing bleakness of the world. Curtis cant sleep, his performance at work is affected because he has all these worries on his mind. I take the bus to work everyday because I save a lot of money by doing so; I don’t have to worry about gas money or paying huge amounts of money to park my car. On my travels through the city, I see so many things that make me feel the same way Curtis feels on this film. Sad little tell tale signs, sad little details I see in everyday life. These observations accumulate, until finally, a dreadful aura is felt in everyday life. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know if “everything is going to be all right”.  This feeling of despair is what takes over Curtis’s mind until he feels he is going crazy. But is he? The idea in this film is that maybe he isn’t. Maybe the world is going to hell in a hand basket and we are not even remotely prepared for what is coming! It’s no surprise that a film dealing with this subject matter ends up being so frightening and bleak. The scariest movies are those that show us a future that might very well be. The feeling you get when you watch a film like Take Shelter is the same feeling you get when you watch films like 1984. Take Shelter will make you feel identified with many of the feelings and situations presented in it.

Michael Shannon proves once again that he is one of the finest actors of his generation. His intense performances have attracted some of the best directors in the field. Directors like Werner Herzog who used him in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2006); a film that also focuses on the American family. Sam Mendez also used him on Revolutionary Road (2008), yet another film that explored family dynamics. On that one he portrayed an extremely anti-social character, which it seems is the kind of character Shannon excels at playing; the kind of character that freaks you out just by looking at you. A look into those eyes let’s you know something terrible is going on behind them!  The family showcased in Take Shelter is a middle class one, a family that lives with just enough money to survive and maybe escape once in a while on vacation, but for this family things are getting so bad that even their planned dream vacation is fading away. Shannon portrays a psychologically vulnerable and fragile man; tittering on the border of insanity. In reality all he cares about is the welfare and safety of his family. His wife, his daughter, these are the two things he truly cares about and the increasingly negative aura of his life is threatening their happiness, what’s the head of a family to do when his families happiness and safety is in peril? This is why I loved this film; at its heart it portrays a man who wants the best for his family. Jessica Chastain plays the supportive wife who is trying to cope as best as she can with her husbands troubled mind. Jessica Chastain continues to amass an impressive resume of films, like Shannon, she's also worked with some of the best directors in the field, most recently she was in Terrence Malicks masterpiece, and one of my favorite films of 2011, The Tree of Life (2011). 

For Curtis, the world outside is so scary that at one point he refuses to face it. There are some powerful symbolisms in this film; of course the impending storm that is perpetually coming in the film is the big symbolism for the growing problems in the world. The film adeptly identifies one of the main problems in the world: GREED. It is no surprise that in the film, the rain drops that fall from the sky look and feel like oil, like gasoline; this feels completely appropriate considering how we live in a society that depends so much on it. Have you ever stopped to think just how much oil is consumed in the United States on a daily basis? Let alone the world? Oil and gasoline have become scarce and the countries that have it are being invaded, hell, whole wars have been started simply because of it. I’m glad this film addresses this matter directly. There is a pivotal moment in which Curtis goes berserk and blows up telling everyone that they have no idea what awaits them, that no one is ready for what’s coming and I have to say that I agree. Like that young dude at the end of A Serious Man, everyone seems distracted by movies, music and video games. Take Shelter asks the following questions: does anyone realize the terrible things going on in the world? Does anyone realize how much worse it could get? Should we ignore the world situation? Make believe everything will improve on its own eventually without us taking charge and doing something about it?

This is a power house film that comes to us from a new voice in filmmaking, director Jeff Nichols and this was his sophomore effort. His first film is one called Shotgun Stories (2007), a film I intend on watching soon, it also starts Michael Shannon so Take Shelter actually marks their second collaboration.  I am looking forward to this directors future films and the themes he will tackle in them. If they are going to be as powerful and as relevant as Take Shelter is, then we’re talking about a very promising director here. Highly recommend this film, it speaks about us; now. Don’t miss it.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Anonymous said...

Fantastic review sir! One of the most beautiful yet heartbreaking endings I've ever seen to a film. Absolutely fantastic. I JUST reviewed this one myself

Franco Macabro said...

Hey POT: I tried reading your review, but something on your page wont let me go into it, I guess my computer detects something "dangerous" about a link or something in your page in it doesnt allow me to read it.

But I agree, the ending caught me by surprise as well, but at the same time, it had to happen, I mean, I like the idea that his visions, his preocupations werent at all invalidated; that made everything all the more frightning in a way.

Marta said...


Saw this film recently this week matter of factly and could not sto thinking of it. Personally the ending can be interpreted so many ways. So I take it you believe that Curtis is a prophet, the storm came true.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, I mean, unless the last frames of the film are a dream, and there's nothing shown to give us that idea, then yeah, the storm came true, but of course, its all highly symbolic, the storm is simply an allegory for how the filmmakers envision the future of society. To these filmmakers and many more out there, this is a theme that keeps popping up in films, things are only going to get worse.

Thanks for commenting!


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