Wednesday, 26 January 2011
SUNDANCE 2011: Take Shelter
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wingham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker
By Alan Bacchus
Despite being barely distributed Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories was like a force of nature - a film and a filmmaker the cinema world at large just couldn’t ignore, and as such found its audience. As a second film, Nichols shows remarkable confidence with a story less easily definable than the ‘revenge’ drama of Shotgun Stories. Take Shelter is ambitious, complex and deceptive, a serious and painful domestic drama about paranoid psychosis with brain teasing philosophical themes.
What’s eating Curtis La Forche? He’s a regular Midwestern husband and father to a young daughter who is deaf. Nagging Curtis is a series of increasingly disturbing nightmares, not just disposable dreams, but premonitions perhaps which can even manifest itself into a physical reality.
Afraid of turning into his mother, who in Curtis’ youth was hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia, quietly Curtis goes through the steps to diagnosis his disorder. As Curtis’ delusions increase in intensity threatening to financially corrupt his family, a strong spiritual force pushes him to create a storm shelter in his backyard. Why? If Curtis knows he’s suffering from delusions why does he commit to such a useless endeavour? And why does his wife allow this to happen?
The family commitment to Curtis’s endeavour is the heart and soul of the film, and represents the prevailing theme, a spiritual commitment to something intangible, a feeling that you are doing the right thing.
Curtis’s dream sequences show some rather robust skills in horror and suspense. The surreal and random nature in which these sequences occurs remind us of Adrian Lyne’s work in Jacob’s Ladder. Perhaps the most stunning sequence occurs when Curtis and his daughter are caught in the house during a storm so violent it lifts the furniture up into the air - a scene rendered in Inception-like super slomo. Other scares provide more than enough shocks to keep us on edge at all times.
The most frightening aspect of the film though is Curtis’s real world decent into paranoid schizophrenia. Nichols treats this delicately and with realism, outside of any genre-based superficiality. Curtis’s ailment is serious and we feel every moment of pain for he and his family.
I’ve mentioned Jacob’s Ladder, but tonally the film perhaps which compares best might just be M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a carefully-paced narrativewhich simmers before paying off the tension with a couple of superlative dramatic scenes. The first comes in the lunchroom, which features a very angry Michael Shannon letting loose, and second in the emotional climax inside the storm shelter. Especially in the latter Nichols’ keen awareness of rendering a climax worthy of lengthy set up shows cinematic skill. And then there’s the denouement, which elevates the film and it’s themes to another level. It might divide audiences, but his desire not to settle with the conventional is also another sign of greatness. Take Shelter is one helluva ride.