Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

There's a storm coming...

There's this one quote that I've read somewhere on the Internet (where else?) which says that dreams do come true, but so do nightmares. In "Take Shelter", the line between nightmare and reality gets blurred within the mind of a man compelled to enact on his eschatological visions. With yellow rain, black birds forming unusual patterns across the sky, and intense thunderclaps flooding his consciousness, Curtis, a blue-collar worker who is as depressed psychologically as he is financially, anticipates an impending storm quite the same way Noah did thousands of years ago. But if the latter has prepared a humongous ark to accommodate his family and the entire animal kingdom and save them from the great flood, Curtis squeezes out his loans dry by building a storm shelter some 10 feet underground. "Take Shelter", directed by Jeff Nichols, is a small-scale film whose themes are ironically biblical in scope. Is Curtis insane, or is he just a man who is after all crying a very real kind of wolf? 

Perhaps, there's no other form of mental disturbance worse or alarming than the kind where one sees frightening visions of the apocalypse, but what's scarier is the idea that such visions can be easily shrugged off. Michael Shannon, one of the most intensely specialized character actors right now, portrays Curtis in such a way that his perceived craziness seems to be bordering murderous but still comes across as someone very fatherly and sweet. Jessica Chastain, playing Curtis' wife, also excels in her role as a typical homemaker who wants nothing but an orderly and financially secure life for her family.

In all fairness, the film takes a while before its pace really picks up, but once it does, it really is quite shattering, to say the least. With Curtis' visions subdued and perfectly made ambiguous throughout most of the film, "Take Shelter" takes perfect advantage of its narrative's mysterious aura to create a schism between what's true and merely imagined. Indeed, what's so admirable about "Take Shelter" is how, being the doomsday prophet that he is, Curtis' visions affect his family more than it do other people that when he finally lashes out to tell the latter of the storm, what we see is a sympathetic man who knows that he miserably failed his family by squandering their life's savings and letting his insane projections of the armageddon seep out of his mouth for them to hear. 

But, surprise surprise, "Take Shelter" is also more than a quasi-apocalyptic drama. Set amid the backdrop of the U.S. economic crisis, "Take Shelter" is also effective as a subtle commentary on America's depression-stricken economy at the time, which also makes Curtis' excessive expenditure on building the shelter seem more ridiculous and unjustified. It also certainly aids the film's implosive nature by setting the story in a relatively sleepy community as opposed to setting it within the heart of America, as it welcomes a more unsettling kind of 'apocalypse aesthetic' without looking like a climax of a superhero film. 

"Take Shelter", visual-wise and as far as the idea of the world being no more is concerned, is indeed the antithesis to the films made by Roland Emmerich, who definitely knows how to put on an eschatological light show in the biggest of cities and the most popular of landmarks every now and then. After all, "Take Shelter" is an unsettling psychological drama, so it's only fitting for the film to unravel from the inside. "Take Shelter" may understandably be left unseen by many due to its acquired taste kind of pacing and narrative approach, but it's definitely something that flirts with the sublime. 

For many years, we have been given films about the end of the world that are chock-full of inspirational speeches and heartstring-tugging melodrama. Even the bible has made it look quite intense and a bit fun with Noah and his zoo-like ark. But perhaps, "Take Shelter" is the most accurate in its delineation of the end: somber, terrifying, and something akin to the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". What this film highlights is that the world may certainly end, and here comes the cliched T.S. Eliot quote, "not with a bang but with a whimper." And if ever this film has proven anything, then it is the fact that it's a real bummer being a doomsday prophet.

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