Monday, November 7, 2011

Take Shelter

What are you most afraid of? There are plenty of options for us out there. Take a glance at the top news stories and Twitter trends, and you'll find words like "crisis," "alarming," and "shocking." As a culture, we have a twisted fascination with fear. Some of the most popular films in recent history are the Paranormal Activity films, low-budget horror flicks that make audiences scream and jump. In an economic downturn, this is what we're choosing to place in front of us. Halloween was last week, and there were plenty of haunted houses around. I wonder what a "real life haunted house" would be like. It'd consist of alarming statistics about the economy, global poverty, wealth distribution, and real-life horrors like the sex slave trade, AIDS, and famine. Frightening, to say the least.

What if you imagined something horrifying, a terrible apocalyptic nightmare that felt so real it jolted you out of bed? What would you do? Take Shelter places an ordinary man in that extraordinary situation and allows us to watch as his world quietly unravels. Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a family man and construction worker living in small town Ohio. His marriage to Sam (Jessica Chastain) is solid, and his deaf four-year-old daughter is the brightest spot in his life. A friend reflects, "you've got a good life, Curtis. I believe that's the best compliment you can give a man."

One night, Curtis begins to have nightmares. They begin with an ever-growing storm in the distance, dark clouds that roll in with purpose. Rain falls like thick yellow motor oil. Frightening visions of menacing strangers torment him. Often they are attacked him or his daughter. Each time he wakes with a start. Each time it feels incredibly real; he cannot shake the feeling that these dreams mean something, and something bad.

The visions begin to happen during his waking hours. Claps of thunder startle him. Murmurations of starlings begin to appear. These aren't terribly frightening phenomenons of themselves, but their repetition--and apparent invisibility to everyone else around--eats away at Curtis's mind. He wonders if anyone else is seeing this. His mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia early in his life. He reads up on mental disorders and starts to see a counselor. He doesn't feel crazy, and the visions are as alarming to him as they would be to anyone else. He doesn't fly off the handle or begin raving in the streets; he quietly ponders it all, hiding much of the struggles from his family. Much of his attention turns to the underground tornado shelter in his back yard. He feels strong urges to make it safer, more secure, to prepare for something dreadful that is about to take place. He takes out a risky loan to finance an improvement on the shelter and invests a great deal of energy into creating a second home in the depths of his back yard.

Michael Shannon's performance as Curtis is the driving force behind Take Shelter. Director Jeff Nichols--who also directed Shannon in Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories--slowly builds a growing sense of fear through Shannon, who becomes a conduit for the mounting dread that permeates the film. Curtis is quiet and surprisingly normal, with brief explosive outbursts that allow for cathartic releases of tension while also cultivating more of it. Shannon portrays Curtis as just crazy enough; his brooding eyes foster both empathy and fear. Jessica Chastain is equally powerful as Sam, a wise and pragmatic wife who only wants to support her husband in this time of distress. It's some of the best acting you'll see this year in one of the best films from 2011 thus far. From the acting to the cinematography to the pacing to the final climactic moments--Take Shelter has one of the better endings I've seen in a while--this is an artistic meditation on the concept of fear and our fear-driven culture.

What of these visions? Are they the results of a psychological disorder, simply some bad dreams, or a warning of sorts? Could their source be Divine? What if Curtis was the modern-day equivalent of Noah, a man called by God to build something that would shelter his family from the coming storm that would destroy the world? Could anyone fault Noah for spending a decade of his life building the ark? Before the flood, we would have written Noah off as insane, a madman with an obsession. I wonder what his own family believed; God hadn't spoken to them, as far as I can tell. Was their husband and father a prophet for God, or a fear-driven man having hallucinations? Put yourself in Curtis's shoes, or Noah's. What would you do?

Take Shelter raises these questions and more. Who or what do I trust? Can I trust my own mind and instincts when they seem to be falling apart? What should we really fear? What fears are driving my life? What is God doing in this world that so often appears to be falling apart, and what needs to be my response?

It is to this latter question that God offers a quiet response to our anxiety and trepidation: fear not. When we are taken to the end of our rope, when we feel over our heads and everything appears to be falling apart, it is in this place of fear that God quietly assures us of His presence. God is love, and perfect love casts out fear. Regardless of the oncoming storm, we can trust Him.

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