Tuesday, February 21, 2012

WTF, Academy?: A Review of Take Shelter

Want to see the best horror movie of 2011, and a film that is, at the very least, stronger than The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball? Visit your local Redbox or Neflix queue and check out Take Shelter. Please. I'm seriously begging. I need to talk to someone about this compelling, terrifying, moving, and masterful film.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has taken the concept of pathetic fallacy and pushed it to its very limits. His movie follows Curtis (Michael Shannon in a brilliant, sophisticated, complicated performance that takes Brad Pitt's Billy Beane and eats it for breakfast) as he descends into delusional paranoia. Maybe. Curtis's persistent and unsettling dreams about coming storms literalize how the subconscious speaks to us in code. Whether a real natural disaster is looming or not, Curtis's fears about a devastating tornado are symbolic for the way life can deliver catastrophes with very little warning. His daughter, Hannah, is now deaf but wasn't always, giving credence to his psyche's realization that there are some disasters you cannot prepare for.

Shannon's totemic face is this film's anchor as the audience becomes more and more uncertain as to what is dream and what is waking life, what is fantasy and what is reality. In a movie season where psychological disorders have become shorthand for social commentary (Melancholia, The Beaver, It's Kind of a Funny Story), Take Shelter explores and explodes the way a human mind can reflect and distort its environment in order to conform to expectations both reasonable and not. Curtis knows he must protect and provide for his family (daughter Hannah and wife Sam, played by Jessica Chastain, of course) in a way his distant father and mentally ill mother never could. For him, that means bankrupting himself in order to finance a tornado shelter that could withstand an apocalypse or two, and brushing aside his fears that he might be going crazy. Up until the last, brilliant, scene of this film, I had no idea whether his bunker would be a) necessary; b) a mark of his madness; or c) a tomb. I'm still not entirely sure. In the way the film interrogates the modern relationship between the sociopolitical and the individual, I'm reminded of both Jonathan Franzen and The Social Network, another, to my mind, unconventional horror flick.

Take Shelter is a cinematic cousin to my other favorite movie of 2011, The Tree of Life. Both films show a natural world beautiful in (and because of) its awesome power and disinterested cruelty. However the former takes seriously the implications of this world on individual human minds. Shelter is something, therefore, that is not a given, but a privilege that must be seized--violently if necessary.

I'm still shaken by this movie, and especially by Michael Shannon's tour de force performance, and not just because I have recurrent nightmares about tornadoes too. They nominated Shannon for Revolutionary Road and overlooked him for this? For real?

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