Saturday, 26 November 2011

Storm Und Drang

by Nick Pierce
Michael Shannon’s face: Old-fashioned. Crumpled and bulging like an edifice of living stone on the brink of collapse. Enormous. It might seem a strange thing to hone in on, but it’s integral to the appeal and the power of Take Shelter. Like Klaus Kinski or Humphrey Bogart, Shannon has a larger-than-life countenance built for cinema and one of the chief pleasures of this indie gem is seeing how he and screenwriter-director Jeff Nichols construct a brilliant performance around it. Surely the character actor du jour in America at the moment, stealing scenes in everything from Boardwalk Empire to Revolutionary Road and almost certainly destined to be the best thing in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, his role as everyman Curtis LaForche in Shelter is his finest yet.
    
  Jeff Nichols’ sophomore feature is a daring and ambitious melding of social realism and apocalyptic parable. It recounts the gradual mental disintegration of Curtis, a blue-collar worker plagued by nightmarish visions of impending disaster who decides that it is his responsibility to safeguard his family’s future by pouring money into the restoration of a bomb shelter in their backyard. Jeopardising his economic stability and alienating himself from his family and his peers, Curtis is wracked with doubt as to whether his dreams portend disaster or burgeoning mental illness.

  Despite only recently coming to prominence, Shannon has been appearing in films since the 90s (with his first official credit being for Groundhog Day!) and in Take Shelter he delivers a master-class in screen acting presumably acquired from all those years of hard graft in other people’s pictures. He plays it restrained and stoic, only giving away his mental strain through a recurring facial twitch and his hunched posture, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. It is a deeply moving and layered performance, Shannon conveying both Curtis’ monomania and his shame that he should be afflicted in such a manner. In fact, it’s so convincing and he wins our sympathy so completely that when he finally does snap in the third act in front of a room of people one almost feels as if one is witnessing the breakdown of a relative. To be explicit, although there is little of the showboating that typically earns Academy Award nominations, this is the kind of acting Oscar was made for. He’s got my vote anyway…
  
  What also makes Take Shelter so impressive is the way in which Nichols skilfully negotiates the plot, avoiding the corny melodrama that such a bold narrative might have prompted from a lesser talent. Although Curtis’ visions are suitably alarming, punctuating the story like irruptions of disorder into his fragile psyche, Nichols keeps the drama grounded throughout. Even if – at least to Curtis’ way of thinking – the end of the world is at stake, our protagonist is more immediately challenged by the prospect of risky bank loans and keeping his family afloat in a treacherous economy. It is this paralleling of everyday pressures with Curtis’ acute and unshakeable premonition of danger that makes the film work so well as an allegory that is both timely and timeless. Curtis effectively is the voice of America in 2011: wanting to insulate itself from the outside world now that it has been made painfully aware of how precarious is its position; of how the American Dream isn’t written in the constitution after all, but in the sand.
 
  More than this, despite his possible madness, Curtis is also that sobering side of every one of us that has ever taken stock of the world. In one short scene, he pulls over on the side of a motorway and alights from his car to watch an electrical storm rage overhead whilst his wife and daughter sleep soundly in the backseat and other motorists drive past seemingly oblivious. ‘Isn’t anyone else seeing this?’ he asks aloud, as if addressing the universe, amazed at humanity’s blissful ignorance. Real or imaginary, Curtis has been granted a glimpse of the fragility underlying everything of which most of us are only fleetingly cognizant. What makes the film so unnerving right up to its audaciously ambiguous ending is that it suggests the authenticity of Curtis’ visions is in some sense irrelevant because ultimately his fears are justified regardless.
 
  Surprisingly then, considering the subject matter, and without giving too much away, Nichols’ sophomore film also contains an element of cautious optimism. Like his debut, Shotgun Stories, it is fiercely humanist in its emphasis upon our potential for tolerance and the importance of togetherness. And in the climactic sequence set in the bomb shelter Nichols intimates that as long as we remember to honour these impulses we may never be completely lost.