(Sony Pictures Classics) I searched out Take Shelter before I heard about it from others who were as shaken and moved by it as I was. It was this wonderful characterization in Boardwalk Empire that provoked my curiosity: the prohibition officer -- a chilling portrait played to the icy clever edge by an actor I didn’t know, Michael Shannon. A religious fanatic who flagellates, mortifies his body with a whip, a cold chiseled face who never cracks a smile, who finds that his subordinate (actually a puppet of the master Nucky Thompson, bootlegger and more) does not accept Christ and, in a chilling scene of a baptism in a river in front of a crowd of black worshippers who are too fearful to report him, he drowns the Jewish nonbeliever. He’s chilling cold and as provocative as a sliver of pointed ice plunged to the heart. Actor/writer together have done a masterful job in this characterization.
So when I heard he had done a film called Take Shelter, I had to see him. The intensity of his role, so different from the character in Boardwalk, kept me glued to the seat for two long hours -- slow-moving but totally riveting.
An ordinary guy, an everyday guy, has a wife and child. He works on a tough job, he’s conscientious, he’s reliable. And all of a sudden, he begins to have bad dreams. Terrible dreams of something awful about to happen. Now this is a scary model very often seen in genre something-awful-about-to-happen films, but this one isn’t. This is something more and far above, and it scared the merde out of me because it was not only real but so possible. His dreams concern danger to his wife, to his child, to his home, and a terrible rain of…what…oily substance? He becomes frightened…and then goes beyond fear.
Beyond because his mother is mentally ill, and he’s not certain if these are just dreams or prophetic dreams, or maybe he’s slipping a cog and going off the edge.
But the dreams are too real to ignore. He borrows money (not a good idea in his financial state) and begins to rebuild an old tornado shelter. And folk think he’s nuts. And we don’t know if he’s off the edge or what. And it all builds so slowly -- you’re riveted.
What’s so strong about this film is not only his acting but the fact that his wife, although alarmed, loves him and stays with him. He visits his mother, who’s way off the edge; he goes to a psychiatrist, yet he ends up following his sense of absolute obligation to those he loves. He builds a shelter to protect them from harm…what harm, he is unsure.
And one night there is a tornado alarm and they rush down into it. And I cannot say more. You know that something is happening and you don’t know what. All I can say is that it made me think of two films: One was an oldie with Fred Astaire at the time of the explosion of the atom bomb. It was called On the Beach. So scary a concept that, while I watch interesting movies over and over again, I didn’t want to see this one twice. The other was lighter-weight -- Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind back in 1977, where the protagonist has a vision and begins to build a certain shape and is possessed by it, and finally goes off in search of it. That film, however, was a ray of hope in a darker world. Take Shelter is a prophetic film of a darker mold.
I cannot say more except that Michael Shannon is an actor to watch. He is intense, focused, utterly and fearfully real, both in Boardwalk and in this film. Interestingly, in Boardwalk, another fine character is Nucky Thompson’s brother, Shea Whigham, also an intense and, with this week’s episode, a completely compelling portrait of a man who has metaphorically shot himself in the heart. In Take Shelter, he’s a soft, easy-going side-kick who does not understand this man who suddenly is possessed with protecting his family against disaster…when there seems to be no disaster.
This isn’t the entertainment of the usual “absolutely frightening danger to the species” film where someone is going come up with an antidote or a thingamajig to save the planet. This is possibly you, in these really scary times of religion against religion, political party against party, powerful against powerless -- actual loss of shelter for too many. And at the end of two hours, I got up out of my seat stiff with apprehension, not really wanting to think about this film. It came too close to where I live.
Sony Pictures Classics' 'Take Shelter' is released on September 30, 2011.