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MCC Request Line #7: “Take Shelter”

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Hey, wow, it’s a supposedly recurring feature everyone forgot because it stopped recurring!

Dormant but far from nonexistent, the Midlife Crisis Crossover Request Line is always open and accepting recommendations from MCC fans for stuff I can or should read, watch, or experience and then relay the results here, whether it’s high art or deep hurting. Today’s suggestion was offered a while back by British film reviewer Natalie Stendall, whose current home is at Writer Loves Movies.

Our feature presentation: the 2011 indie drama Take Shelter, starring Man of Steel‘s Michael Shannon and Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain. Writer/director Jeff Nichols would later go on to greater acclaim with 2013’s Mud, which signaled the beginning of Best Year Ever for its star Matthew McConaughey.

But before Mud…there was General Zod going mad in a quiet little town.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Ordinary construction worker Curtis (Shannon) has an ordinary loving wife named Samantha (Chastain) and a deaf young daughter (non-actor Tova Stewart), but watches his reality unravel in the form of strange portents (birds behaving badly, weather looking at him funny) that may or may not signal the end of the world. Running with the theory of “Better safe than sorry”, Curtis prepares for the apocalypse just in case, like a good family man should — watching the skies, feeling the potential hallucinations as they come, warning others of his visions, “borrowing” work equipment to build an impregnable underground bunker.

The question lingers all throughout: is Curtis a prophet without honor in his own country? Or has he just gone mad? Can his friends and family afford to stand by patiently until he figures it out?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Most of the cast and crew are locals and amateurs for whom Take Shelter is their lone IMDb credit. Just two Hollywood names stuck out to me: Shannon’s best friend is played by Shea Whigham, who’s recently had tinier roles in larger films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle; and Kathy Baker, best known for CBS’ Picket Fences, has a quick bit as an old relative whose own history of mental issues make it all the harder for Samantha to trust Curtis as his actions stretch increasingly farther outside the box.

Nitpicking? Nichols nails exactly how much slower life can be in a small town. City dwellers used to a fast pace in their movies as well as in their everyday movements may fidget in their seats while waiting for characters to do something besides sit, stare, and deliberate. It’s all in the service of building emotions and tension if you stick with it.

Also, the movie received an R-rating demerit solely because of Whigham’s foul-mouthed lummox. Some best friend he turned out to be.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Throughout most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether you’re seeing an in-depth look at the slow-burn process of a deteriorating mind or a Twilight Zone episode. Shannon handles the part with a reserved fragility instead of going for the overblown Jack Nicholson freak-out. For many folks, there’s not always a defined moment when they cross the line from sane to not-so-much. Shannon reins in that increasing burden but lets it slip through his fingertips gradually, allowing for only a single Zod-like meltdown in a community-center cafeteria, made all the more shocking because he’s kept it in for so long. And steps are taken to ensure he doesn’t spend the rest of the film that way.

Then again, if he’s right and the world is ending…well, here’s hoping there’s time for apologies later, preferably before the world’s end.

Meanwhile, Samantha matches her husband move for move. The wife in these movies usually stands by, helpless and frightened while their husband acts nutty and gets all the glowing reviews and the critics bemoan how fine actresses are wasted playing such one-dimensional placeholders. Not the case here — Chastain plays the godly wife for as long as possible — concerned and patient while trying to grant benefit of the doubt. When lines are eventually crossed, though, Samantha knows their household needs someone stepping up and staying in charge, for her own sake as well as their daughter’s, so she has no choice but to pull rank and start laying down new ground rules. It’s a response we see more often in reality than in Hollywood (outside basic-cable telefilm caricatures, I mean) — when a husband miserably fails to hold up his end of things, either the wife is forced to fill the void or their world will come crashing down figuratively, whether it happens literally or not.

For anyone who’s interested in seeing deaf characters in films (I have a sister-in-law who works in the field), this one’s a worthy addition to your all-too-short list. In the early happy-family moments, watching Shannon and Chastain engaging in ASL banter with their daughter over meals is adorable.

So did I like it or not? The two lead performances are each a top-notch deviation from formula; the amateur supporters fill in the gaps nicely without feeling coddled; the CG effects for the “visions” are well rendered for a zero-budget indie film (courtesy of hy*drau”lx, an established company whose founders are listed as producers in the end credits); and the will-they-won’t-they? apocalypse sustains the guessing game until the final gripping scene. With so much going for it, it’s a shame I bought my copy from the ignominious clearance bin at my local Barnes & Noble, but I’m grateful to have been pointed toward it.

How about those end credits? No scene after the end credits, just a few dozen thank-yous to three Ohio towns and their local businesses and citizens who made this plucky, tantalizing little film possible.

[The MCC Request Line is open! If you know of something worth viewing or reading — whether large or small, independent or mega-corporate, famous or new start-up — or if there’s a sad travesty out there that demands closer examination, feel free to let me know by email, Comments, or the official MCC Facebook page! Now that we have Netflix streaming, any suggestions accessible there would be doubly appreciated, because the pickings there seem fatally slim.]

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