I've seen two truly terrific apocalyptic thrillers in the horror vein this year. Melancholia's end of days rabble-rouser is John, played with giddy madness by Kiefer Sutherland. He meticulously and almost gleefully measures the steady approach of a mysterious new planet that's about to collide with Earth and obliterate us all. Construction worker Curtis LaForche, Take Shelter's preoccupied prophet, is played with contemplative dread by Michael Shannon. Both performances and both films are searingly memorable, but in very different ways and employing opposing approaches. In Melancholia, there is no doubt our existence is in grave jeopardy. In Take Shelter, we do not know if Curtis is a modern day, one-off Nostradamus, or if he is simply succumbing to the chilling effects of mental illness.
Signs point to the latter, especially when Curtis visits his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker, so superb and so underrated) in the confines of her hospital suite, trying to narrow down the possibilities for the strange, scary visions he's been having. Visions of
the family dog attacking him while he's with his young daughter; visions of a sky whose storm-clouds bleed viscous raindrops; visions of zombie hordes shattering the windows of his truck and tearing him to shreds. Although the signs do seem to point to a rapidly vanishing mental hold on reality, throughout the film we are given just enough reasons from writer/director Jeff Nichols to care about Curtis and to give him the benefit of our doubt.
At first, Curtis tries to conceal his distress from his sweet, homey spouse Samantha (played by the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who's in 7 2011 films as opposed to Ryan Gosling's paltry 3). His deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart, making her debut here and doing so flawlessly), is the focus of the family and always has been, so when Curtis' needs become special also, he's embarrassed and too humbled to admit it. However, unlike many fictional characters who're plagued with grand-scale apocalyptic waking dreams, Curtis doesn't just roll with it and start making a bomb shelter. …Well, he does build the underground bunker, but he's also portrayed as reasonable and astute when he's shown seeking medical attention as best he can on the sly.
The persistence and pervading evil of the hallucinations (which we are privy to, nudging Take Shelter into the horror.com camp), eventually become too intense for Curtis to shun. Samantha, their family friends, and Curtis' concerned coworkers begin to notice something is terribly wrong with the man they thought they knew. Meanwhile a storm, a real one, gathers… Perhaps Curtis is not insane, after all.
As with actual calms before tempests, there is heavy menace poised in the silences. The Take Shelter architects (Nichols, and DP Adam Stone) build suspense and buoy anxiety through suppression, nuance, and reflection. As these breezes shift, the actors soar with them — all are up to the task, but this truly is Shannon's perfect storm.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson