THE CUTTING ROOM - Episode 4 Review by Joseph Christiana
There’s a moment in 2011’s TAKE SHELTER where the main character Curtis is asked by a counselor about his looming mental illness and a long, long moment passes before a reply comes. The brilliance of the film is embodied in that excruciating beat. It’s a void that holds in it all the terror suffered by the main character. It’s the terror of admitting that you’re not in control of your own life. This moment like most of the scenes in the film are confidently handled by writer-director Jeff Nichols, but the genius of it is all in Michael Shannon’s performance, the anguish we feel in his tortured hesitation.
Shannon has a face that invites scrutiny and contemplation. And he manipulates it in a way that doesn’t try to telegraph emotion. Rather he tries to conceal it, to hide away his inner workings, which is much closer to how real humans behave and therefore more compelling. The effect is that Shannon draws you into his character and entwines you with his soul. We feel what he feels. This is the greatest achievement an actor can hope for. It’s the reason we go to movies.
Of course the whole of a film is more than the summation of the lead character’s performance. In TAKE SHELTER all of the cinematic components are firing on all pistons: the direction is well- paced and observant, the script is direct and attentive to subtext, the supporting cast is near pitch perfect, the cgi effects are tasteful, and the cinematography is discreet and effective, as is the score. So it may seem unfair to draw a synopsis designed mainly to support further discussion of Shannon, but here goes anyway:
Curtis LaForth is a lucky man. Despite adversities –including his daughter’s deafness and entanglements with our dysfunctional American health care system- he’s happy, healthy, and content. He loves his wife. Enjoys his job. But he’s evidently ill at ease, for he begins dreaming of weather related catastrophes that threaten to take away everything. In these dreams, which seem more real than reality, storms loom on the horizon like the face of a god's vengeance, motor oil shits from the sky, his dog attacks him, and worse… much worse. The dreams are truly frightening to witness and they effect us almost as they effect Curtis— that is, on a physical level. And he begins to interpret them as prophecies of apocalypse.
His behavior becomes strange and erratic. He distances himself from his family in an effort to protect them from what he understands are irrational decisions. He starts building a fallout shelter in the back yard. He loses his job. He fights with his wife. Things are falling apart. He knows his actions are responsible, that he's self-fulfilling his prophesy, and he knows that he very well may be inheriting the mental illness of his mother. The thing is, he can’t help acting on his visions. How can you deny something that’ real to you… even if it seems like lunacy to those around you?
So there’s two monsters in this film: The first is the catastrophic storm that may be coming if Curtis actually proves to be a chosen prophet, which very well may be the case, and the second, far worse demon is the mental illness that threatens to steal Curtis’ self and destroy his family.
By the time Shannon delivers a near biblical sermon to his community, prophesizing the storm with the fury of the most rabid skid row zealot, we’re actually hoping that there really is God’s Terrible Apocalypse on the horizon, because it’d mean that Curtis is sound of mind after all.
And in the closing moment, because we, like Curtis can no longer discern reality from delusion, we’re deprived, I think, of any definitive answer.
One thing is certain however: whether Curtis’ visions were truly prophetic or simple madness, there’s a terror he has no control of looming above him, readying to bear down.
Shannon is far and away the most intriguing actor we have today. His presence is palpable. When he walks on screen, you feel him in the way that you feel a dangerous man walk into a small room. His presence has a weight that’s more than just metaphorical. You can feel it. You can almost measure it. He’s an anchor worthy of the grandest movie production vessels… or the flimsiest of skiffs. In other words, his performances would make the greatest films better and the trashiest films worth watching. When he has a script and direction as concise and well- balanced as Jeff Nichols’, then what you have is a performance worthy, yes, of the word masterpiece… making this a four star film.
Ok guys, this film is categorized as horror on many lists, but I think it’s a prime candidate for inclusion in what’s become a thematic discussion here in The Cutting Room: Horror or not?