Take Shelter

A perfect storm - ★★★★★

A man foresees a bad storm. Everyone says he’s crazy. Maybe he is. Or maybe he isn’t.

This, is Take Shelter in a nutshell. A compelling tale that is slowly developed, dragging the viewer through the full range of emotions but amping up the tension and unease that exists in a town, workplace and family whenever someone begins to show signs of mental illness.

I could hit “Publish” now and be done with it, but that would deprive me of talking about one of the best films of the year.

Michael Shannon came to my attention in Revolutionary Road when he managed to outshine two of cinema’s brightest lights – Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet. When playing someone who has been written as “touched” or “troubled”, everyone knows you never go “full retard”, but it must still be difficult to find some fresh subtleties to bring to a role. Shannon excelled, and while he lost out to Heath Ledger’s Joker on the night, he was the true break-out name from the acting pack of an awards season that, with the exception of The Visitor’s Richard Jenkins, honoured a lot of the old favourites.

Since Revolutionary Road, Shannon has done lots of of theatre work, appeared in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and is a regular on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. But he also tends to ends up in a lot of tripe – namely 13, Machine Gun Preacher and Jonah Hex. His leading role in Return, from first time director Liza Johnson, was brilliantly received at Cannes’ Director’s fortnight but has no release date yet. Boo. Oh and I guess I need to mention he also finds time to be a superhero villian – he plays General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel. So all in all, the kid’s got a pretty wacky filmography.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a construction supervisor with what seems to be a perfectly comfortable life. But scratch below the surface and you find the challenges of having a deaf daughter, institutionalised mother and a looming sense of dread and paranoia. It’s this fear that there’s some bad shit coming that drives him to re-mortgage the house to fund the upgrade of an old tornado shelter in the back yard. Nightmares and apocalyptic visions take over (don’t they always) and he’s forced to rely on the local healthcare system for support, unsurprisingly with little success.

Two scenes stand out, one is a charity luncheon where tensions with workmates come to a head.  The other takes place when a storm sweeps through the town and Curtis decides isolation for him and his family in the new bunker is the only solution. Both scenes resolve themselves in a way that is indicative of both the caution and strength of character needed when dealing with people suffering from mental health problems. The catalyst in both of these is Samantha, Curtis’ wife. While there is no denying this is Shannon’s movie, Jessica Chastain, in her seventh role this year (she really is everywhere), is brilliant in the “we will get through this” rural American housewife role.

To linger on the ending – which I loved but may be divisive – would do the rest of the film a disservice as it’s not really the destination but the journey (sorry for the car ad style cliché) that matters here. Jeff Nichols has constructed a film that is brilliantly paced that strikes a spot-on balance between the looming darkness and rural America’s problem with anyone going against the grain. It’s incredibly hard to fault and if there is any justice in the world we’ll be seeing Shannon walking the red carpets during festival season next year.

"So I think the world might be ending end so I've given away the dog and bought a family pack of gas masks... Can you pass the milk?"

Jeff Nichols  /  Jeff Nichols  /  Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain  /  120 min  /  Drama   / Release:  14 October (US/Canada), 25 November 2011 (UK/IRL)