Duck and Cover, by David Bax
When you think of films with impressive and costly-looking visual effects, you tend to think of movies with a big budget. CGI doesn’t come cheap. The more someone spends on a film, the less risk that person wants to take, so these big budget, effects laden films also tend to be broad and impersonal. Perhaps Robert Zemeckis can be allowed a large enough budget to use visual effects in service of a narrow and personal story like Castaway but Zemeckises are few and far between. Generally, a budget like that is awarded to blockbuster, tent-pole, genre movies that will bring in the teenage male audience who will best respond to the Coca-Cola product placement that paid for the CGI in the first place.
Jeff Nichols’ new film, Take Shelter, with its visual effects by Hydraulx and sound done at Skywalker Ranch, would seem to defy that logic. On a closer look, though, it is, at many times and to powerful effect, a genre film. Those who delight in horror films or psychological thrillers will find plenty to sate them here. Though it is a largely quiet story of the inner life of a man struggling to do the best for his family, it’s also about the tensest movie you’re likely to see this year.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a husband to his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and father to their young, deaf daughter, Hannah. Curtis works as a crew chief in a sand-mining outfit that affords them a modest house in their small Ohio town and the ability to take one vacation a year, to Myrtle Beach. Soon, Curtis begins to have nightmares of apocalyptic storms coming, storms that turn animals and people he trusts against him and his family. Then these nightmares begin to bleed into his waking life, becoming either visions of a coming tempest of monstrous dimensions or the hallucinations of a man losing his mind. Shaken by what he’s seen, he sets himself to building out the tornado shelter on his property, making it a place he, Samantha and Hannah could theoretically survive for weeks.
Whether or not Curtis is taking wise measures spurred by prophetic sights or acting obsessively as his mind is irreversibly clouded with schizophrenia is, for the most part, up to the viewer to decide. Yet when he is in the grips of one of these visions, we are forced to experience it from his viewpoint. It’s at these times that the film becomes a harrowing psychological horror film, expertly wielding genre tricks in terms of framing, editing and sound to makes us understand these episodes the way Curtis does, not just visually but as an overwhelmingly encompassing visceral attack.
Impressive as the visual effects are (they truly are beautiful and horrifying), the film wouldn’t be nearly as potent without the flawless lead performance by Shannon. Through a physical presence that is nerve-racking in its high strung stillness and line deliveries that are choked and terse, yet overflowing with meaning, he is disturbingly successful at making tangible the suffocating anxiety of what very well may be paranoid schizophrenia.
Nichols, whose first film was Shotgun Stories (also with Shannon), displays the control of a veteran filmmaker. He blends the real world and the nightmare world so well that you are never quite sure if another terrifying vision is about start or even if you may already be in the middle of one. In a film that is largely defined by its naturalism in terms of performances and locations, he manages to make computer effects and outlandish sound design feel like they fit.
Every choice Nichols makes is so correct, so immediately and apparently the right one, that you begin to believe that there wasn’t any choice to be made at all. He makes it look easy to create a great film. It’s only as it builds, as it works toward a hellish crescendo you’re not sure you want to witness but have to, it becomes apparent just how impeccably he has kept the whole thing on track.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Take Shelter isn’t wholly conclusive in its ending. At least, it’s not in the way that your standard, studio, big budget and effects movies are. But it’s not purposefully puzzling either, like Inception. Really, when you think about it in the days after you’ve seen it (and you will), it’s not inconclusive at all. It’s just one of the saddest and most devastating movies you’ll have seen in a long time.