Friday, December 9, 2011

Take Shelter

No matter how much we are willing to let them affect us or not, we live in a world of constant fear and anxiety. The fear can sometimes be large and abstract like the fear of death or small and fleeting like the fear of brief moment of embarrassment. And the anxiety can be enormous like extreme paranoia or simply the anxiety of watching a sports game. With the wider availability of news and media, we have in many ways a larger access to a variety of trepidation. There is always something new to be terrified about from terrorism to swine flu. And with the increasingly complex lives we grow into as adults, we are forever being exposed to new anxieties, from anxieties about our health to anxieties about the safety of our families.

I won’t go into an entire analysis of fear, but I will say that one of the reasons we are so afraid is that we never live according to knowledge but always by anticipation. Anticipation is how we organize reality and try to make the future knowable. Our understanding of the future is invariably built on our dreams, even the things that seem most certain to happen. We imagine such and such will happen in the future because x, y, and z.

As much as the “imagine” factor in this equation is important, so too is the “because.” It forces us to ask: what are we basing our dreams of the future on?

TAKE SHELTER is largely about the fear and anxiety of uncertainty and anticipation. It is also about what influences our imagination and produces fear within us. Curtis LaForche is an adult man living in the modern world with a wife and deaf daughter to provide for. Much of the film is focused on the daily anxieties of just being this. There is anxiety over finances, over keeping your job, over keeping your daughter safe and well cared for, etc. Nichols does a wonderful peppering in little details to remind us how much anxiety can dominate our lives. From a simple shot of gasoline being pumped to a poster on HIV testing in the background of a health clinic, Nichols keeps his mise en scène (I just got 10 film buff points for using that word) attuned to anxiety. And then, of course, there is the larger anxiety in the film of dealing with intense premonitions and the possibility of mental illness. Nichols also does a great job of keeping us absorbed in the perpetual nightmare that is consuming Curtis. We are always aware of the torment and fear and what is producing it. This is all extremely important. For a film dealing with anxiety, it seems obvious that it should produce an anxiety in us too. But this isn’t so easy to do. You need to have a strong attention to detail, you need to be intelligent, and you need to know how to absorb us in the characters so that we feel something strongly for them. Luckily, Nichols skillfully meets all three.

The first impression I had walking out of the theater is that Nichols is a very talented filmmaker. He knows how to build tension and empathy in equal measure. The film is obviously very ominous and riddled with anxiety, but it is also deeply attentive to character development and has moments of real charm and warmth. I think the scene with the “crayon lipstick” is just as important to the film as any of the incredibly eerie and generally terrific nightmares. It’s nice moment of relief from the anxiety, but also a real window into the heart that is fueling a lot of the anxiety. One definitely gets a sense of how much this family means to Curtis, and because of this, they come to mean something for us in return.

There are some absolutely absorbing emotional scenes in this. Two of the biggest (and presumably obvious) are the scene at the Lion’s club and the climax in the shelter. At the Lion’s club, after Curtis explodes before his neighbors, he sees his frightened daughter and there is real pain in his eyes. Here is man who is desperately trying to protect his child from an overwhelming sense of danger and he ends up terrifying her. It’s an emotional moment to see because we sense how painful Curtis’ position really is. There is a similar sense of emotional pain in the climax in the shelter, but also an almost palpable dread. My heart was racing the entire time in the shelter. Part of this was because I knew the film would end soon and I was anxious as to how it would do so, but the other part was the fear of what Curtis might do to his family. I kept thinking, “if he kills his family or keeps them locked up down there...holy shit, then I would know why John hates the ending so much.” That fear for the safety of the family is certainly there. And then, of course, I was anxious that Nichols would end the film as soon as Curtis opened the shelter (I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought we’d get MEEKS CUTOFF’d). Not that I would have minded this (I probably would have loved it), but I was just so anxious to see what he was going to deliver for us, which is another testament to the film’s dexterity. It builds beautifully towards something, and that something always keeps us intrigued and guessing.

As to the film’s actual ending, the one thing I can definitely say is that it makes you reflective. As the credits started to roll, I was glued to the seat for a moment trying to think over how I felt about. Whether it is a good or bad ending, it got me thinking deeply, so it did something right. I think Brandon could probably do a better argument for the ending then I could. All I can really say is that I didn’t feel disappointed by it. Maybe because it doesn’t come down either way completely. There is still the obvious possibility that it is another vision, which may be the case. Or it is the real thing and the premonitions have been true. Certainly, it seems we are lead to believe that this is the case. I really don’t know, but I do know that the shot of the storm in the reflection of the glass doors is splendid.

This film will easily be very high on my 2011 list. I can’t complain about any of it. I was deeply impressed by all of Nichol’s choices as a filmmaker. And I haven’t even mentioned the acting, which is terrific across the board. Shannon is one of the best actors around. There is such an incredible intensity to him even in his quieter moments. And Jessica Chastain is so beautiful and naturalistic. I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Of course, now I want to see SHOTGUN STORIES. And I’m really exited to see what Nichols does next. His work with TAKE SHELTER is very impressive and incredibly promising.

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