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Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00

A Psyche Unravels in 'Take Shelter'

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Written by Diane Carson
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Beginning with the prospect of an eerie, menacing storm, Take Shelter finds Curtis LaForche in a quizzical state of apprehension facing the ominous clouds. His puzzled, uneasy wariness will increase as nightmares intrude into his sleep and hallucinations populate his waking hours. Is he exhibiting the early signs of paranoid schizophrenia, as his mother did in her mid-30s?

Writer/director Jeff Nicholls suggests other possibilities as well. Is Curtis suffering from intense anxiety, the stress that comes with an six-year-old daughter who's deaf, a wife who sells her hand-stitched goods at fairs to have a few extra dollars, and whose job pressures seem to mount? Nicholls knows we can all relate in some way to such fears. In addition, Curtis reacts compassionately to the evening news report of a chlorine spill that kills several people, and there are those periodic storms and tornadoes that threaten those who life in flat northern Ohio.

I'm of two minds about Take Shelter because Nicholls can't make up his mind. I so wish he had because the most intense, recognizable drama lies embedded in Curtis' apprehension about his good life in jeopardy. When he can't handle his nightmares and reaches out to doctors and counselors for help, I'm rooting for him.

The periodic times director Nicholls starts throwing in cheap horror film tricks for shock effects, he distracts from the truly engrossing question: is this what it feels like to be inside the ordinary individual as he or she becomes mentally unstable? That's the intriguing issue, and it's a shame Nicholls didn't trust it instead of manufacturing drama or playing for ambiguity. The final scene, that I won't reveal, offers an especially disappointing waffling instead of a firm commitment and assertion of closure.

The actors are up to the challenge without phony frights. As Curtis, Michael Shannon slowly comes unraveled emotion by emotion, though his hunched over, motionless poses become tiring. As his wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain is solid—believable, loving, alarmed, and understandably frightened in many ways by her husband's erratic behavior. Late in the film, Chastain gives a phenomenally nuanced performance in reaction to Curtis' meltdown.

Sound designer David Wingo knows that playful, childlike music adds dread. And Adam Stone's cinematography effectively depicts claustrophobia as well as fear facing a menacing panorama. So, despite its faults, Take Shelter is provocative and haunting. At a Landmark Cinema.

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