Apocalypse Now: Financial and Mental Meltdown in Take Shelter
Standing outside his small-town Ohio home, his wife and child busy preparing breakfast inside, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) looks up at the ominous slate-gray sky in the first scene of Take Shelter. The clouds open, raining down oily piss-colored droplets. Its end-of-days weather, a phenomenon that only Curtis seems to witness, and the first of many private, impressively CGId apocalyptic visions to come. Like Carol White, the central, unglued character of Todd Hayness Safe (1995) who is allergic to the 20th century, blue-collar worker Curtis is haunted by one of the looming terrors of the 21st: financial ruin. This unarticulated fear triggers Curtiss mental illness, and despite a few missteps, Take Shelter powerfully lays bare our national anxiety disordera pervasive dread that Curtis can define only as something thats not right.
The protagonist in writer-director Jeff Nicholss second film is, however, unquestionably a stand-up guy, a devoted 35-year-old paterfamilias. You got it good, Dewart (Shea Whigham), Curtiss co-worker at the sand-mining company, tells his friend after theyve downed a few large cans of post-shift Busch. Supplementing Curtiss modest income with the handmade notions she sells at Saturday-afternoon flea markets, wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) stays at home to look after their deaf six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), whose upcoming cochlear-implant surgery would be unthinkable without Curtiss insurance benefits, soon to kick in. The LaForche family is a loving, tight-knit trio until Curtiss gradual unraveling begins to chip away at their stability. Remaining tight-lipped about his nightmares and hallucinations involving murderous dogs, intruders, colossal atmospheric disturbances, and dead birds falling from the sky, he begins to alienate family and friends over his obsession with canned goods, gas masks, and the storm shelter in the backyard, which he has expanded to a subterranean labyrinth. Im doing it for us, Curtis sheepishly admits to increasingly vexed Samantha, understandably outraged when she hears about the risky home-improvement loan her husband took out for his deranged project.
That expense totals $6,875; dollar amounts are never rounded up or down, the precise figures underscoring the strain of keeping running debit and credit columns in your head at all times. Samantha, seen often in the same pair of Levis shorts, accepts payment for an $8 handcrafted pillow in changemoney that goes directly into a cookie tin. For Curtis, this daily, nagging financial pressure metastasizes into unmanageable duress.
Shannon, who starred in Nicholss earlier feature, Shotgun Stories (2007), has specialized in playing the brainsick ever since his breakthrough role in Bug (2006) as a traumatized war vet clawing his own flesh to bloody ribbons. In Take Shelter, the actor adroitly falls apart; although Curtiss night terrors cause him to wake up gasping for air, wet the bed, and bleed from the mouth, these dramatic incidents are followed by the silent confusion of a man too ashamed, for most of the film, to admit to his wife that hes losing his mind. Its a finely tuned performanceuntil Shannon delivers a late-act freak-out at a Lions Club supper, popping out his peepers and bellowing to the townsfolk that there is a storm comin like nothing you have ever seen. Although brief, the scene comes dangerously close to negating Shannons subtle work earlier in the film, such as Curtiss terrified witnessing of what he cant escape during a visit with his mother (Kathy Baker), diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 10, and now spending the rest of her days at a grim assisted-living center.
Although Shannons Rust Belt provider, driven insane by a world that has abolished nearly all of its safety nets, appears in almost every scene of Take Shelter, Chastain, with much less screen time, makes just as strong of an impact. The actress, who seems to have starred in at least one movie each week since the May release of The Tree of Life, is, by necessity, often in reactive mode here, whether trying to make sense of her husbands frightening behavior or offering compassion when he finally explains why he has been frenziedly digging up the backyard. She sees something, she says something: Chastain grounds the film by listening and responding, making the film as much a portrait of a marriageof sacrifice, compromise, and, most significantly, boundary-establishingas it as a portrayal of madness in crazy times. Samantha might love her husband unconditionally, but she refuses to share his psychosisat least until the ambiguous ending.
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