Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Take Shelter Movie Review: Truly Mad, Deeply

The gathering storm.
Madness, true madness, is a terrible thing. I’m talking about clinical disorders, the kind that most people know little about, even if they talk a great deal about them. Even scientists would probably admit they’re only now scratching the surface of psychological disorders, their causes and their treatments. As laypeople we tend to think of madness as the prototypical depictions we see in movies or even occasionally in real life on the street. We see a man muttering to himself in a park, or maybe he’s even shouting at no one, or everyone, and we point to him and say, “That guy’s crazy.” Movies have given us the lunatic cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the depraved insanity of sociopathic killers in countless thrillers. But the truth is that very few people are afflicted the way pop culture would have us believe, and many more suffer quietly through conditions that might be benign to outsiders or as debilitating and difficult to witness as schizophrenia.

Michael Shannon shot to mid-level stardom with an Oscar nomination for playing the emotionally disturbed neighbor in Revolutionary Road, a performance that, while very good, was still based on a conventional approach to mental illness. Now take his latest movie, Take Shelter, which is a character study painting a portrait of a man named Curtis who slowly unravels before his family and friends. Curtis is a kind of blue collar everyman. He lives in Ohio, works for a mining company, has a lovely wife and dutifully learns sign language to communicate with his deaf daughter. But something is not quite right in his world, signaled by the first image in the film of Curtis staring toward distant gathering clouds and then hanging around while the rain soaks him.


We realize soon after that this was some kind of dream or hallucination and these visions only get worse. As the film progresses and Curtis lumbers through his days, he slowly unravels. Nightmare visions leave him rattled and paranoid. He becomes distrustful of his dog first and then his work partner and friend, Dewart (Shea Wigham) – both sources of terror to Curtis in dreams that startle him awake, sometimes having embarrassingly wet the bed. Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the film, skillfully weaves together the delusions and the realities to the point that the line between them is blurred, much as it is inside Curtis’s head.

Nichols doesn’t depict Curtis as defined solely by his developing mental illness. He’s a husband, father, friend, and in a couple of heartbreaking and key scenes, a son and a brother. Nichols smartly gives Curtis self-awareness. He’s not just coming apart at the seams while everyone around him watches in confused horror. He’s actively conscious of just how oddly disturbing much of his behavior is, even if and in spite of the fact that he can’t control it. When he asks Dewart’s help to borrow a backhoe from work to dig a hole in his backyard to fix up the storm shelter, the protection he believes he needs for some apocalyptic tornado he believes is coming down the pike, his friend acknowledges the oddness without making a big deal of it.

This is part of what Nichols does so well in the film. It’s about making each individual act of insanity seem bizarre, but not completely off the wall, while making the whole lot taken in aggregate add up to reckless and destructive. Shannon is terrific in the role. His wide expressive eyes suggest a man trying desperately to do the right thing for his family while also satisfying the impulses he knows deep down to be wrong. The key to the enigma that is Curtis is his mother (Kathy Baker), a woman suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and living in an assisted living facility since Curtis’s childhood. He goes to her with probing questions, comparing his own experiences to hers. When she asks him if everything is all right, he tells he he’s fine. In that moment we know things can only get worse. If he can’t tell the one person who would understand perfectly what he’s going through, then how can he explain it to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), his wife?

Chastain has been having a banner year and here as Samantha she is a stalwart rock for her husband so he can have some way to remain firmly planted in reality. Out of her initial confusion is borne understanding with moments of anger and resentment. Chastain plays it all close to the chest. She doesn’t oversell anything. For such a young actress, she is almost masterful at subtlety, virtues she’s also exhibited in The Debt, The Help, and The Tree of Life, all released this year.

The slow, deliberate and brooding style are complemented by an eerie score provided by David Wingo. Take Shelter is as refreshingly honest a depiction of mental illness you’re likely to find in a movie, standing in stark contrast to the comparatively hokey version of schizophrenia that Ron Howard provided in A Beautiful Mind.  To know and to witness mental illness is to recognize that it’s primarily about reacting to uncomfortably strange behavior. Jeff Nichols understands that so well I hate to think what he has in his life that has provided such intimate knowledge of truly troubling subject matter.

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