Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: Take Shelter

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has created a brilliantly understated film in Take Shelter. Thirty-something husband and father Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to have horrific nightmares and hallucinations concerning an oncoming apocalyptic storm. Take Shelter hinges on whether these are actual visions of the future, or the onset of mental illness in Curtis (whose mother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when in her thirties). Risking his already precarious finances, he decides to renovate an old storm shelter in his backyard so as to be ready for what he thinks he knows is coming. Curtis, an average, kind, American working man with family and money worries, is ably played by Shannon, who taps perfectly into the mixture of pride, love, doubt and awkward embarassment that you'd expect to see in an Average Joe who suddenly has strange, prophet-like symptoms thrust upon him.

For it's that question which really drives this film; is Curtis a schizophrenic, a prophet, or a schizophrenic prophet? Take Shelter seethes with repression, but is not itself repressed. The spectre of the oncoming storm is out there for all to see; shots of boiling grey clouds, deafening cracks of thunder and lightning, strange oily rain, and flocks of atmospherically addled birds abound - but, only Curtis (and, of course, the viewer) can see or hear them. However, this isn't your average 'is he crazy or isn't he' flick; Curtis is clearly a sane man doing what any sane man would do when confronted with the unavoidable evidence of impending disaster. The viewers, while sceptical as to whether the storm actually is coming, are always onside with Curtis, while his family and friends grow colder and more alienated (although his wife (Jessica Chastain) is remarkably understanding and supportive once he comes clean).

The act of hearing is paramount where this film is concerned; the music and sound perform the task of building tension well, but it's the spaces between the sounds which are the most interesting, almost creating vacuums within the film, as though Curtis is already standing within the eye of his own personal storm. This is intensified by the fact that Curtis' daughter Hannah is deaf, and in a way, we seem to hear the film through Hannah as well as Curtis; silence is a sound in its own right.

There has been a recent influx of this sort of film; an exploration of our own personal demons through the occurrence of a grand, naturalistic event. Von Trier explored depression though the arrival of a dangerous new planet in Melancholia, and in Another Earth, in which an almost identical planet appears in our solar system (a planet containing another you), Mike Cahill explores guilt and existential angst. In Take Shelter Nichols takes an uncomfortably close look at mental illness, manifesting itself as gathering stormclouds (but not just any stormclouds - armageddon heralding stormclouds). Perhaps it's a reflection on our times that so many of these films are appearing now, when there is unrest and concern for the future worldwide.

Take Shelter is on general release in the UK and is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment.

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