This review was first run during the Melbourne International Film Festival. It opens in NSW, VIC and WA on October 13, 2011.
I should have known better than to pigeonhole Michael Shannon. I’ve seen him in a number of films at this point (including his work on TV’s Boardwalk Empire), and I thought I had him pegged. When I heard he played a man driven to madness by his fears of an impending apocalypse in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, I figured we’d see plenty wrath-of-God speeches coming from his mouth amidst an onslaught of bodily tics. That’s not to diminish his previous work – he’s a great actor – but his role in Take Shelter sounded like such ‘a Michael Shannon role’. I didn’t want him to wind up in a typecast box from which he couldn’t later escape. This film proves there is no box the man can get stuck in.
What I thought would be a man-goes-crazy ‘end of days’ thriller turned out to be a thoughtful, heartbreaking movie about mental illness, and Shannon gives an understated, haunting performance as a man tormented by hallucinations. Despite the love of a good woman (Jessica Chastain), and a beautiful young daughter (Tova Stewart), Curtis LaForche (Shannon) can’t shake the feeling that a storm of Biblical proportions is coming. Knowing full well that schizophrenia runs in his family, he seeks medical help for his increasingly violent visions. But although he has the presence of mind at first to acknowledge that he might be losing his mind, the fact that he is losing his mind means he will eventually succumb to his obsessions. Against all good advice, he pours his family money into the building of a storm shelter in their backyard, preparing for a reckoning.
He’s a sympathetic man, often apologetic for his actions and ashamed of his increasing madness; it’s a nice contrast to the typical depiction of people driven to this level of insanity, especially in this post-“rapture” age we now live in. The film has a moving, perfect climax. The final scene, however, I’m not sure I like. It raises some interesting questions about the line between crackpots and prophets, but seeks to undo the focus on mental illness that came before. Still, Shannon gives one of the best performances of the year, in a film that manages both white-knuckle intensity and tender drama. Watch it as a double feature with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Take Shelter opens in NSW, VIC and WA on October 13, 2011.