I really am beginning to regret making my favorite films of 2011 list so early, particularly considering that I had not seen a considerable amount of films that received critical acclaim from the year. It is likely that films like The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and even Drive would have replaced some of my choices. However, I was adamant that no film I watched from last year would be more spectacular and profound than Tree of Life. This was certainly the case, until I watched Take Shelter. Without a doubt, this Jeff Nichols film about paranoia and the decaying of the family unit within rural America is one of the best films of the past decade and contains what may very well be the best ensemble acting performance of last year. A film like this gives me faith in the possibilities of independent film in the next decade, considering that its budget was nothing compared to a work like Super 8 or Midnight in Paris, yet manages to exude both the thrill of cinema and honesty of good narrative better than both of the previous films combined. I also mentioned that The Muppets film accrued much of its praise from being an astute observation of the economic woes in The United States, however, its comedic leanings lessen some of its pertinence, where as Take Shelter focuses on the same issues in a grating and inescapable manner, and for that its is also brilliant.
Take Shelter, set in Ohio, the heart of tough living American in the past few years, focuses on the daily interactions of Curtis (Michael Shannon) a working class man struggling to support his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and the medical demands of their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis seems capable of dealing with his heavy demands; until he begins have hallucinatory dreams about an impending storm of yellow water that will leave nothing in its destructive path. As a result of the paranoia that insues with his dreams, Curtis begins repairing a worn down storm shelter in his backyard, despite the economic demands of such an endeavor. Initially realizing the absurdity of his actions, Curtis keeps his projects a secret to his wife and friends, only recruiting the help of a co-worker to help build the storm shelter. As the dreams become more dark and the economic demands become greater, Curtis finally falters and his visions hinder his ability to be productive. He loses his job and his wife becomes enraged with him and at one point he completely falls apart at a luncheon attacking his former friend and yelling at everyone in the room with a prophetic omen about the impending disaster. As a result of love, or perhaps fear, Samantha follows Curtis into the shelter on a particularly stormy night and they await a passing storm. Eventually they leave the shelter to realize that everything is fine and that their world is back to normal. The family then takes a much needed trip to the beach where, Curtis watches Hannah become preoccupied with a storm brewing across the ocean. Samantha steps outside and witnesses the storm herself, suggesting that Curtis was indeed right about his fears, or in a more bizarre possibility that the entire family has slipped into a destructive paranoia.
While paranoia certainly influences the narrative of the film, Take Shelter is far more concerned about the effects of the economy on family relationships, particularly when money proves an inescapable burden. I plan not to elaborate in too great of detail on this because I am going to formulate a paper about this for an academic journal, but I will give a few general commentaries on this notion. First off, the film inserts various brief scenes about money woes through the film, whether it be the depictions of the family eating the same meals every day, or Curtis' pricey trip to the gas pump. All these brief additions are intended to set up a monetary demon for the family that is constantly attacking them, only to be worsened by the dangling promise of healing Hannah through a pricey medical procedure. With these notions in place, the impending storm could represent a variety of ideas whether it be complete bankruptcy or the fears of divorce it is something that could cause a frenzied panic and, furthermore, an anxiety so great that Curtis would need to seek psychiatric advice. In one of the films more brilliant scenes, Curtis takes his family into the house built within the shelter, one created from using a storage unit as a portable home. It could be read as creating a sort of new sphere, separate from the private and public, considering that neither has proved beneficial to the family. However, as the film proves, even this new creation is useless as the "storm" that influences the entire narrative finds new methods to attack Curtis and his family.
Key Scene: The dream sequence between Curtis and Samantha...you will know it when it happens.
Take Shelter is a gem of 2011 that was all but ignored. Thanks to the excellent podcast Battleship Pretension, I was turned onto this film and I can only further their recommendation and demand that you get a copy on bluray. It will be worth your time and money.