J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stormy in the Heartland: Take Shelter

Better safe than sorry was the principle guiding our mayor in the days leading up to Hurricane Irene’s fly-by. Curtis LaForche would not necessarily agree with him. Nevertheless, he is compelled to act on his visions of apocalyptic storms in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

LaForche is a hard-working family man, completely dedicated to his wife Samantha and their daughter Hannah. He has a steady job with good benefits, but times are still difficult, especially since Hannah lost her hearing. The last thing he needs is the end of the world, but he cannot shake the increasingly horrific dreams plaguing his sleep. Despite his better judgment, LaForche begins upgrading his old tornado shelter in anticipation of a Biblical-level storm.

Contrary to viewer expectations, LaForche is not portrayed as a Fundamentalist lunatic. In fact, his lack of church attendance is a point of contention with his in-laws. Rather, as the son of a mother living under permanent supervision, LaForche is only too aware mental illness runs in his family. Responsibly, he seeks professional help, but the dreams persist.

Shelter is unusually sensitive in its depiction of a Middle American family under stress. The LaForches’ experience grappling with Hannah’s deafness could have easily been a movie unto itself rather than just a sizable subplot. Still, the second act is a bit sluggish, continually repeating the cycle of increasingly creepy visions, followed by LaForche’s subsequent erratic behavior. However, the gritty honest performances from the central players should keep audiences invested throughout the lulls.

Perfectly cast as LaForche, Michael Shannon has the right rough-hewn look, while expressing a host of inner conflicts with delicate nuance. He creates a fully dimensional, legitimately engaging character. It is hard to imagine any other actor in the part. The suddenly hyper-busy Jessica Chastain is also totally convincing as the more practical, down-home Samantha, sort of playing a more accessible variation on her break-through role in Tree of Life.

Throughout Shelter, Nichols never looks down on his Red State, God-fearing characters, treating their dramas with the seriousness they deserve. Indeed, it has no snark and no irony. Rather, Shelter challenges viewers to put themselves in LaForche’s place. An unexpectedly humane film featuring a lead performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, Shelter is definitely recommended (ironically more for audiences in the heartland than typical patrons of the art-houses it will most likely play). It opens this Friday (9/30) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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