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February 14, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray – Take Shelter (2011)


Michael Shannon plays a construction worker named Curtis.  Lately, Curtis has been having terrible nightmares, which he inevitably interprets as prophetic visions. In one nightmare, his gentle dog bites his hand and after waking, Curtis continues to feel the pain in his hand for the remainder of the day; in another nightmare, townsfolk attack him and his daughter. The nightmares grow more and more unsettling and Curtis begins to believe that the end is nigh. He tells his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) that a storm is coming and that its magnitude will be catastrophic and possibly apocalyptic.

Such is the life of a man who can’t distinguish dreams from reality. When it rains, he looks down at his hand and sees that the rain is yellow and feels like motor oil. Also, angry flocks of birds fly in mysterious circles and random shapes and directions. His wife suggests that he see a psychiatrist because his mother had suffered from schizophrenia and she hopes that Curtis hadn’t inherited the ailment. And that’s when the film, while starting to draw the line between reality and imagination begins to focus on Samantha and her having to put up with a potentially crazy husband. His temper flares sporadically, he builds a shelter in the backyard and stocks it with cans of food, and he even lets go of the dog.

What we have here is a film that builds suspense at a deliberately slow pace, like a slow burn, and keeps rational thoughts at bay. Curtis is in the foreground so it becomes a “state of mind” film, in which we follow him wherever he goes, do what he does, and delve into his psyche. We feel his pain and his frustrations not just with a potential coming apocalypse, but also with the townsfolk believing that he’s insane. The fact that we’re never told whether his visions are real or not heightens the feeling of uncertainty.

Michael Shannon is a tremendous actor, leaking talent onto the floor behind him. He delivers a performance at the top of his (early) game and still has plenty left over for the next few projects. What he does in a few scenes in this film is more powerful and believable that most actors today can deliver in their entire lifetime. His performances in Shotgun Stories (2007), My Son My Son What Have Ye Done (2009), and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire are nothing short of brilliant and I can’t wait to see him play General Zod in the upcoming Superman film The Man of Steel.

Jessica Chastain also delivers a performance at the top of her (early) game and fills it with tremendous confidence and a touch of frailty. Samantha is uncertain as to whether Curtis is crazy or not and we believe that she’s uncertain of the fact; we also hope that she’ll stick by him because they make a terrific couple. Also, their hearing-impaired daughter is incredibly adorable and we want to see them succeed as a family.

Shannon and Chastain transcend the traditional parent figures and leave the personification of film characters on the front doorstep. They seem like people, rather than characters, at all times and that’s a talent that writer/director Jeff Nichols has been utilizing since his directorial debut of Shotgun Stories. Here is a film that’s initially quiet, thoroughly well shot, and constantly intense, racking up our nerves as the minutes roll by. We don’t know what’s going to happen by the end, but whatever it is it’ll make sense. This is not an M. Night Shyamalan film; this is a quality product that delivers the goods right from the start and ends with- well, you’ll see.

The DVD and Blu-ray contain a commentary track with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon; Behind the Scenes of Take Shelter; Q&A with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham; and Better Safe than Sorry.

Original Commentary Track review of Take Shelter by Nir Shalev.

Other new releases this week: Paranormal Activity 3, The Rum Diary, Tiny Furniture