Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What I Saw: Take Shelter

What I Saw: Take Shelter

Danger is all around us. We try to prevent it, categorize it, manage it. We childproof our houses, take out insurance policies, pray to the deity that makes the best promises, and fasten our seat belts. Take Shelter is the story of one man trying to protect his family from the forces of nature that are threatening them on a large scale through the elements, and on a small scale within his own brain chemistry. Or perhaps it is a film about one man who desperately fears being judged by others, either within his social circle or during the supernatural apocalypse. Or perhaps it is a movie about the threats to modern masculinity caused by changing economic, medical and gender constructions. Or perhaps...

That’s the thing about danger: It is singular and multiple at the same time. It’s simultaneously real and imaginary, located everywhere and nowhere. Take Shelter actively breaks down the dichotomies and categorizations that we erect to tell ourselves that we are safe. It throws a monumentental list of challenges at a single family (schizophrenia, deafness, tornadoes, animal attacks, medical bills, economic hardship, social ostracism), and then brilliantly refuses to say which threat is the most severe. This context fuels Michael Shannon’s extraordinary performance, as well as that of Jessica Chastain, as we witness the desperation of trying to protect this family from an ever-changing imminent threat, all the while realizing that his actions to ward off danger in one direction actually place them into greater danger from another direction.

The film poses important questions about the concepts of home, safety and shelter. We are forced to ask ourselves whether we might be the biggest threat to the things we try to protect, and indeed whether the idea of protection itself actually makes us less safe. Might our protective instincts be the real cause of our dangers, rather than the solution to them?

[NOTE: SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE ENDING. EVEN IF YOU NORMALLY LIKE SPOILERS, YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED HERE. TRUST ME.] This film also asks questions about the way we know reality, which led me to consider three possible interpretations of the final scene, each of which is a trick on the viewer in some way. Again, stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie. The first interpretation is that we are seeing an actual event. But that seems like quite a coincidence, and I wonder whether a film about competing realities can really ask the audience to suspend our disbelief so casually? The second interpretation is that he was never able to stay with them in their reality, but instead incorporated them into his--having them stay with him in his world instead of him living in theirs. I mean seriously, what kind of doctor risks sending someone who is this sick on vacation first, even if they could find the money to pay for it, instead of seeking immediate treatment? The third interpretation is more of a hunch, based upon the haunting final shot of Chastain. Her actions and demeanor were so similar to what we saw of him at the beginning of the film, that it made me wonder whether she’s the one who actually has schizophrenia, and everything we’ve come to believe about his character is really just a projection of her hallucinations. While this may seem like a bit of a stretch, is it really any less possible than the other two alternatives?

Oscar Chances:

Sony Classics seems to be doing everything they can for this film. They’ve already sent screeners to Academy members, in the hopes of getting voters to see it early. Unfortunately, independent films often have a difficult time going up against the studio establishment. I’ll be watching closely to see if any of the bigger films lose steam, particularly in the Lead Actor race, but my fear is that Hollywood will fall victim to rewarding the big-name stars in big-name movies, despite the clear quality of this film.

Lead Actor: Michael Shannon (currently ranked 7)
Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain (currently ranked 15, will move up in my next predictions, but I doubt that it will be enough to get her a composite nod for her work this year.)
Original Screenplay: Jeff Nichols (currently ranked 17, will move up in my next predictions)
Best Picture (currently ranked 36, may move up in my next predictions)

Best Director: Jeff Nichols (currently unranked, but will appear in my next predictions)
Song: Ben Nichols for “Shelter” (currently unranked, but will appear in my next predictions)

Art Direction: Chad Keith and Adam Willis (currently unranked)
Cinematography: Adam Stone (currently unranked)
Film Editing: Parke Gregg (currently unranked)
Visual Effects (currently unranked)

My Lamb Score: 5 out of 5 Lambs
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Read more of my reviews HERE.


  1. Wow. Brilliant review! Nice contemplation about the ending; the latter being something I never thought of. Shannon deserves a Best Actor nom, and I think Chastain too. Still a long way to go though. Loved the way that the film develops an array of contemporary fears: environmental, economic, psychological, masculinity. Top work!

  2. i too had this feeling that it could be jessica's character hallucination......i reckon your doubt of jessica's nomination had been cleared

  3. by the way loved the review!!good job

  4. I've only seen Shannon in Machine Gun Preacher. He's good even with his brief screentime. I'll be checking out this one as the premise is intriguing. Interesting that Chastain is in this also, both of them have been on fire recently.

  5. Thank you Andy! This one took me a while to write, but I'm pretty proud of it. I"m really pulling for both Shannon and Chastain to get nominated, but as you say it is a long way to go, and so many larger projects to compete against. Still, this is easily one of my favorite movies of the year.

    Thanks for checking out my blog!

  6. Thanks F.Franklin! I'm really glad to know that I'm not the only person who thought about that third possible scenario at the end.

    I'm completely convinced of Chastain's Oscar WORTHINESS, and will likely be moving her up in my next predictions. I'm still not sure whether she'll end up making the top 5, though, due to both the indie nature of this film and the possibility of people splitting their votes between her different performances, but I'm definitely rooting for her.

  7. Thanks Ruth! Machine Gun Preacher seems to have come and gone from my local theaters, but you should definitely check out Take Shelter. The performances are truly fantastic, and I do think that this is Chastain's best performance this year.

  8. Yeah, I'm really disappointed in the way MGP was distributed. Relativity seemed to have just dropped it and stopped marketing the film, which is a bummer as I think that film ought to be seen. I hope you give it a shot when it's available to rent.

  9. Nice review! I have yet to see this but glad you loved it :) You are probably right that this will probably fall by the wayside when it comes to Oscar time.

  10. Great review, I think this is one of your best pieces of writing yet. I can't wait to see this film now (doesn't open in my area until next week).

    I think the film's only chance at the Oscars is Michael Shannon, but I think he has a really good chance of getting in. I think voters will end up favoring one of Chastain's other performances (The Help or The Tree of Life).

  11. Thanks Castor and Ryan. Definitely check out the film when it gets to your area.

  12. Very good review, I just saw it yesterday! I expected more from it, but it was a good movie! Writing my review now :) By the way, interesting propositions of the end- first I thought it was the option 1, then reading your text, it could very possibly be number 2, and 3...well, that's a stretch! Thanks and have a nice day!

  13. Thanks Aziza! I tend to enjoy films that leave us thinking, so it's possible that I read too much into the multiple ending possibilities. Still, I rather enjoyed the questions that the film asks!

  14. I just saw the film. Loved it. I want to see it again desperately.

    With regards to your ending, I believe it is the actual event. You poise very interesting points with the other two endings, but in thinking back at the way Jeff Nichols set the scenes up, it makes sense.

    However, I am having a hard time (and maybe just completely over-thinking or overlooking) with the people in his dreams (man in window, people outside of his car). What was, if anything, the significance of that? Am I just blindly missing something here or just over thinking it?

  15. Thanks Anonymous! I had almost forgotten about the folks at the window and outside the car. At the time I presumed that they were figments of his imagination, or projections of various parts of his subconscious, but if we take the ending to mean that things will actually happen as they play out, then perhaps there really are people or creatures out to get him! If we think about it as an armageddon of sorts, then they could be angels, or devils or zombies, or perhaps just regular people who know that he's been saving up supplies and expect him to share?