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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Take Shelter

There's no two ways about it, it's been a busy couple of weeks at the cinema and though I really do still need to see Aardman's Pirates! there's still plenty to talk about. 

However, though I will probably still do roundups when the films really pile up, I've decided to from now on give each film its own specific post, regardless of how short the review is. This basically means that new reviews may well come out on a more regular basis from me and that it should be easier to find what you're looking for when navigating the site. I may go back and do this for older reviews as well but for now, this will be the new format going forward.

Anyway, on with the show with one of the more interesting films released this year, Take Shelter. 

Take Shelter is, at its heart, about a subject that isn't often tackled in American Cinema: the thin line between insanity and religious revelation, specifically the idea of prophecy. Now, admittedly, this does make Take Shelter something of an acquired taste but even if the subject matter doesn't resonate with you - though, I have to say right off the bat that I personally found it to be endlessly fascinating - the sheer excellence of the filmmaking should strike a chord with all art-house film goers.

The basic plot is simple enough: Curtis, an average blue-collar worker, starts having visions of an oncoming storm of biblical proportions but are these visions a look at things to come or are they simply a sign of a sudden descent into madness? As he becomes more and more obsessed, it becomes unclear even to Curtis himself whether the true threat lies in the fulfillment of his apocalyptic "prophecies" or simply is his own increasingly erratic behaviour.

The film plays out as a straightforward psychological thriller and has all the building tension and deliberate pacing for which the genre is known, but it's at its best when it goes beyond these trusty generic conventions and digs for something a little deeper. It's a powerful character study of someone who is, in effect, a modern day Noah but a Noah whose faith is constantly challenged by a world of "reason" whose skepticism is based on years of psychoanalysis and scientific empiricism. Its master stroke though, is that as much as the film is interested in the spiritual, the religious and the supernatural, it doesn't necessarily embrace any of these concepts. In the world of Take Shelter, Noah may well be nothing more than a deranged schizophrenic.

It's this ambiguity, this ambivalence that drives the film, but it is the combination of writer/ director Jeff Nichols' disciplined storytelling and the power of the performance of its leads that make the film the raging success that it is. Jessica Chastain has already been excellent in (roughly) a half dozen films released over the last year, but it may well be her work here that cements her position as the single greatest actress of her generation - though, of course, it may just as easily be the cumulative effect of so many diverse but equally sublime performances delivered in so short a time period. Either way, her ability to turn what could have been a thankless "long suffering wife" role into something fully fleshed out and entirely relateable makes her the perfect foil for the film's central figure, Michael Shannon's Curtis.

As for Shannon, while he has something of a reputation for being one of the "scariest" screen-presences around, his performance here takes his natural intensity and tempers it into an entirely believable portrayal of a man who is both ordinary and unbelievably complex. His beautifully honed, subtle and expressive performance here once again shows him to be one of the best and most under-rated actors around.

Of course, solidifying the actors' reputation is one thing - that Chastain and Shannon are brilliant has been apparent for a while now - but it's quite another to cement its writer/director as one of the best American filmmakers working today when this is only his second feature film. And yet, Take Shelter does precisely that. It's a perfectly constructed and beautifully shot but Take Shelter is a near-flawless piece of storytelling that deals with a tricky subject matter with a killer combination of the ease and confidence of a veteran filmmaker and the passion and vigour of a young director with something to prove. It took a while to get here but Take Shelter is a must-see for film fanatics and theology students, both.

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