Favorite

'Take Shelter' a stunner 

Latest from Little Rock's Jeff Nichols explores dread, expansively.

click to enlarge Mike Shannon in Take Shelter image
  • 'TAKE SHELTER': Mike Shannon stars

Compared to the new "Take Shelter," Little Rock director Jeff Nichol's haunting second effort, his "Shotgun Stories" now seems strong but small-bore. (Almost literally so: the screenwriter and director delivers one interpretation of his debut film's anthological title when he pans his camera over the bare back of Son, his hero, and shows it pocked with buckshot.) If "Shotgun Stories," which follows a blood feud among sets of Arkansas brothers, was a keyhole character study, "Take Shelter," admirably, flings open the front door and has the filmmaker running confidently into big-sky Western territory, tinged with some Hitchcockian dread.

That "Take Shelter" feels like the more expansive cinematic experience is  unusual, given its claustrophobic premise. Curtis, a construction worker striving to provide for his wife and daughter, becomes troubled by visions of blackbirds swarming into a helix formation then dropping dead at his feet. Other premonitions lash him with caramel-colored raindrops and wind gusts from twin funnel clouds. All this makes the shadowy, earthen cloister of the backyard storm shelter look more and more appealing, and life above-ground fraught — too much to take, and let, in.

In the film's opening sequence, Nichols establishes Curtis and his family as residents of a small-ish town where backyards seep into farmland. In these shots, the camera lingers no more over the small mound of earth leading down into the storm cellar than on the rusting junk pile in the corner of the yard, or, for that matter, the rolling clouds at the top of the frame. In Nichols' new assurance with the panoptic view of filmmaking the precedent that most came to mind was Richard Donner's "Superman" — that movie's early portion, set in Kansas, when a teen-age Clark Kent discovers his otherness amid a placid eyeful of cornstalks and blue sky. The Fortress of Solitude has yet to beckon.

The possibility of the supernatural at work — and the sort of looming infinite crisis that usually befalls caped crusaders — rumbles at the edges of "Take Shelter." So, too, does the possibility that what plagues Curtis, with his family history of schizophrenia, are delusions of the particularly miserable grandeur of doomsday prophet-hood. The horror of "Take Shelter" is not that Curtis makes a fool of himself prophesying when no one will listen but that he swallows his shame, self-medicating and sneaking off for sessions with well-meaning but underqualified therapists. He's a male Cassandra whose curse is not incredibility but tightly corked self-loathing.

It takes a stolid, self-contained specimen of masculinity to carry this off, and Nichols was smart to resummon his muse, Michael Shannon. (Shannon played Son, of the scarred back, in "Shotgun Stories.") Shannon brings an aspect of stoic, walleyed noir to everything he does, which most often finds him in period pieces. His Curtis is a period man in modern times. His daughter needs a cochlear implant to reverse her deafness, so there are HMOs to negotiate; still, Shannon's Curtis is not struggling to make sense of 21st century life so much as resigning himself to its complications, like a cell-phone tower he warily eyes through a part in the window blinds, convinced it's giving him a tumor. (It is a sign of Curtis' timelessness that he not only takes a sit-down breakfast each morning, but one featuring fried sausage patties that have been hand-formed. Even at his film's bleakest moment, Nichols never fails to find romance in fatty stovetop food.)

Nichols and Shannon are a powerful pairing, but the work of the fine-boned Jessica Chastain, as Curtis' wife, Samantha, grounds the film emotionally as she struggles to keep the couple's finances on track for their daughter's surgery, and, in a very real sense, to keep her husband above-ground. As Samantha awakens completely to her husband's mania and its terrible ripple effects, the character could have amped the melodrama toward emotional manipulation. But Chastain, beneath her porcelain skin, contains a ferocity for maintaining normalcy to match Shannon's gathering storm.

If this all makes "Take Shelter" sound like a swirling, heart-racing thriller, make no mistake — despite intimations that the sky is falling, the very knotty sense of worry the film incites in the viewer is for the characters' sanity and stability, not the fate of the world. (Although when the film does give itself over to Curtis' visions, Nichols shows that, as a technician, he is amply prepared to pull off Armageddon.)

In fact, the film so sure-footedly picks up the path of naturalism upon which Nichols embarked with "Shotgun Stories" that "Take Shelter" is scarcely quotable. So to deliver the final summation, it falls to John Givings, the performance of Shannon's that earned him an Academy Award nomination, for "Revolutionary Road." "Plenty of people are onto the emptiness," Givings says, "but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness." Nichols has managed to craft a vision that sees it all, but still sees a way out.

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

More by Kyle Brazzel

Readers also liked…

  • Not much to 'Love'

    In Judd Apatow's new Netflix original series.
    • Feb 25, 2016

Most Shared

  • So much for a school settlement in Pulaski County

    The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell got the scoop on what appears to be coming upheaval in the Pulaski County School District along with the likely end of any chance of a speedy resolution of school desegregation issues in Pulaski County.
  • Riverfest calls it quits

    The board of directors of Riverfest, Arkansas's largest and longest running music festival, announced today that the festival will no longer be held. Riverfest celebrated itsĀ 40th anniversary in June. A press release blamed competition from other festivals and the rising cost of performers fees for the decision.
  • Football for UA Little Rock

    Andrew Rogerson, the new chancellor at UA Little Rock, has decided to study the cost of starting a major college football team on campus (plus a marching band). Technically, it would be a revival of football, dropped more than 60 years ago when the school was a junior college.
  • Turn to baseball

    When the world threatens to get you down, there is always baseball — an absorbing refuge, an alternate reality entirely unto itself.

Latest in Movie Reviews

Event Calendar

« »

July

S M T W T F S
  1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: On "Beyond Scared Straight"

    • I need to find a scared straight program for my 14 yr old daughter here…

    • on July 20, 2017
 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation