Sunday, December 04, 2011

Take Shelter

PCMR Verdict: Fraught, atmospheric, layered story of a man's mental disintegration. Remarkable performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

Undeniably quality for me, but the mental illness angle is a tough sell, and my 'atmospheric' could be your 'a bit dull'.

PCMR Rating: 7.5/10

'Take Shelter' tells the story of Curtis (played by Shannon), who is very much an everyman as the movie kicks off. He has a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a young daughter, he works for a paycheck, and he lives in an unnamed part of suburbia, USA. His buddy on the job is his drinking buddy off of it, and, outwardly at least, everything is going fine for Curtis.

Until the dreams start. Curtis begins dreaming about a storm, or at least an awful event on the horizon. His dreams quickly escalate in severity, and before long they begin having an impact on his waking life. Curtis's worries about whether he is going crazy are escalated by his Mom's story. She was committed to permanent care for schizophrenia in her early thirties: Curtis is also in his early thirties.

After the dreams begin, some of Curtis' initial decision-making is not great. He talks to his doctor, who recommends he see a psychiatrist. Curtis initially baulks at the idea, but soon goes to see a counsellor instead. Meanwhile, however, he leaves his wife in the dark, partially out of embarrassment, but she very quickly picks up on the fact that something is wrong.

This is a layered story, and is not just about a man dealing with his apparent onset of a medical condition. It's a story of the fragility of relationships, and how even subtle changes in the ones we love can cause untold damage. Curtis's mental breakdown isn't dramatic, at least not until the third act, it's more about subtle changes in Curtis' behaviour, barely perceived by strangers, but keenly felt by those closest to him: his wife, his brother, his buddy at work.

At it's core it's a psychological drama, but Take Shelter plays with some of the same tropes of the home invasion horror genre, especially in the dream sequences. Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' is called to mind when Curtis dreams of standing in front of his wife in his kitchen, shaking his head as she reaches for a carving knife. The payoff of the dream is unimportant: the moment of dread is simple, evocative and powerful.

Shannon's performance here is really remarkable, and - one shouty Pacino-esque scene aside - for the majority of the movie, he is portraying a slow, gradual escalation of an inner struggle, without an awful lot of dialogue. His unconventional face and the intensity of his turn may invite comparisons to Christopher Walken, but that's only a measure of how good he is here. One scene in particular, where his brother attempts to intervene, is particularly memorable.

The unique atmosphere is a slow-burn though, and this might put some people off. Is the movie delicately building tension? Or is it a bit dull and baggy in parts? In this reviewer's mind, it's the former, although discussions were had after the screening I was at: perhaps not everyone will agree with me!

Take Shelter is unique in terms of its atmosphere, and also in its ambiguous conclusion, which leaves the viewer with something of a challenge. I enjoy this kind of ending as it prompts discussion, but it might annoy some viewers.

All that in mind, PCMR reckons this one is worth a look for Shannon's performance alone. Chastain, also, is showing some pretty serious chops of late, and is a very hot Hollywood property indeed. On the basis of this performance, it's no surprise: she's also really very good. Considering all of the above, and also considering the theme of mental illness, it's a high rating, but a qualified recommendation from me.

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