Michael Shannon plays a madman.
Sold yet? You should be.
If, however, you are a little starved for attention or don’t know a good pidgeon-hole when you see one I will go into a little more detail. In Take Shelter Michael Shannon plays a man who may or may not be going mad, he is plagued by visions of a great storm, of a danger to come and devotes himself to the singular focus of fixing up the old, abandoned storm shelter that lays abandoned in his back yard, but he does so at a cost. Once he starts seeing these things he can no longer cope with his everyday life in lieu of the fear and so he slowly starts to take his own apart, piece by piece, hoping to be ready before the storm comes.
It’s a hell of a hook but for the most part it’s not one that the film delivers on. It nails the surface with some absolutely stunning effects which are made all the more potent by Jeff Nichols’ apt handling of them; it is all well and good to show us something scintillescent like an oncoming storm but for it to have that full effect it needs to come as the crescendo to a contextual build up and this is where his work shines. The vision sequences are calmly but coolly directed and the score builds so literally to those moments of awe and catharsis. So it is that the films solid but admittedly rather slight effects (The budget would barely have covered one giant robot ball in Michael Bay’s hands) stand so much stronger than many other efforts.
However, the content of those sequences is not as you’d expect, nor do they deliver the psychological thrills that you may be seeking; there is no great mental mystery for you, the audience, to piece together that will reveal the shocking truth. In the stead of such things the film delivers what I imagine to be a stylized but otherwise entirely accurate depiction of what it is like to live the life of someone developing paranoid schizophrenia. It’s an illness that has made its way into many different movies over the years but mostly as the butt of a somewhat dramatic joke, here it is taken very seriously.
When the man has these visions of the storm we all know that they are fake, even in the midst of an already entirely fictionalized story, and this does somewhat affect their potency; by the third time his daughters life has been put in danger or some similar raising of the stakes, we stop caring completely as we know that he will just wake up again come the climactic moment. Strangely though that doesn’t stop us from feeling the individual emotions associated with each beat – the shock, the awe and the terror – and so it is with the man himself; he knows that these are visions, he knows what it is that his mind is doing but he still feels that deep fear and so he has to act against it, no matter how irrational that seems. This may sound like an obvious statement to those who havn’t seen the film – maybe even to those who have – but it is a very important one and was to my mind the films biggest revelation.
The film’s most harrowing moments though aren’t actually seen in the context of this man’s tsunamic imagination, for the most part they actually come after he wakes up, when we and him both know that there is not going to be the simple on/off switch release of waking up. That moment of waking – in the spit,piss and blood brought out of him by the visions – is one of abject horror and although there were some moments where the audience laughed the late sections of the film are undoubtedly tragic as we watch this innocent man slowly stepping towards his ultimate nightmare out of fear that he may one day reach it. Unfortunately this section is also hard to watch for a number of unappreciable reasons; it quagmires in continuance for one, we already know the concept, we get what is happening and yet Nichols decides to show us again and again and again. Sure, everyday life in such a situation would be like this, but since when have we wanted our films to be clear reflections of everyday life?
It is more than worth making it through these moments however as the ending the film delivers is altogether a fascinating one and something that surprised me entirely – though it seemed at the start that the story could only go one of two ways, this is not strictly the case. I will warn you now, this paragraph will contain massive spoilers, highlight them to read: While all the individual moments of the climax are so superbly shot, more than once sending chills down my spine, I’m still grappling somewhat with the message it is delivering. For a film so strongly based in the reality of mental illness to deliver the kind of ending expected of a schlock thriller is quite a shock. Yes it looked amazing, yes it was a cool moment and that makes it good film-making no doubt, but what should we take from it? That he was right all along to be acting in this way? That all paranoid schizophrenics are right to be acting that way (and though this is a stretch it has to be assumed that every one character is indicative of their many)? And more so, that doctors and drugs and logic and wives are wrong? That they’re hampering us, trapping us and killing us? I don’t believe that this is Nichols’ intention but it is the argument that his film puts forward and this is problematic, especially in the way that it undercuts what had been delivered previously.
That the ending is problematic is a … problem but then I’m not sure what ending would have satisfied me without criticism, especially given how the film had built to that point. On a whole though I was very satisfied with the film; it is near enough to the epitome of entertaining and educational storytelling. That latter element is more important to its success than you may be thinking, even if you’re not someone inherently interested in these illness’. Without that surprise grounding in fact this film would have simply been Melancholia-lite, but instead it stand close enough to alongside that masterpiece, using similar techniques to drastically different effect. A powerful, challenging but really rather riveting drama of the mind is what this film is.