Many people would not immediately recognize the name Michael Shannon when posed to them, but upon seeing his striking glare while playing federal agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he would be immediately familiar. The actor's menacing expression can stare a hole through someone's soul, but he has been turning in underrated yet powerful performances in dramatic films for the last several years, and Take Shelter is his most recent theatrical effort.
Jeff Nichols wrote and directed the film, (a follow-up to his 2007 debut Shotgun Stories) which Shannon also starred in. Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a construction worker in suburban Ohio. Curtis is married to Samantha (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life), who sells hand-stitched goods at flea markets periodically, and the couple have a young daughter who is hearing impaired. Curtis begins to see signs of a brewing storm, but it is something past the usual thunder and lightning. When his dog bites him in a dream, he feels the pain hours after he awakes. The dreams become increasingly menacing, to the point where he quietly attempts to take measures to remedy them, up to and including expanding the storm shelter in his backyard to prevent whatever is coming, from coming in. His behavior at work concerns his friend and co-worker Dewart (Boardwalk co-star Shea Whigham) and eventually Curtis begins to wonder if he is starting to see the same behaviors in himself that occurred in his mother Sarah (Kathy Baker, All the King's Men), who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in her mid-30s when Curtis was still a child. The methods Curtis employs are eventually discovered by Samantha, and the tensions between them along with what Curtis things is happening slowly come to a head.
Nichols and Shannon do a tremendous job of showing us Curtis' journey in a quiet yet concerned path. As his visions become increasingly tangible, he starts to take steps to try and eliminate these visions, dismissing Samantha and telling her not to worry about them. Shannon uses his expressions to portray both an outward stoicism while harboring concern for his own well-being. He wants to maintain as much of the good appearance as he can and to everyone possible. He feels that he has the strength to do so. There is a moment late in the film where Curtis has a Howard Beale moment of sorts, and it is compelling and heartbreaking to watch. It sums up Curtis' frames of mind through the film, something where he feels a palpable dread but feels ashamed to try and explain it, as he appears to be the only one experiencing it.
When he jeopardizes the family's financial well-being (and subsequently a medical procedure to help their daughter), Samantha is initially angry but relents to a degree. She is rightfully furious with Curtis, but she still has a child and husband, so the next steps are what to do about his visions, and whether or not some more extensive care should be done. In a year when Chastain was a female presence in two excellent movies (The Help being the other), her work in this is equal to the task again. The interactions between Chastain and Shannon through the film feel genuine and their believability gives the film an added layer of depth past the 'crazy man' stereotype that could easily have been put onto it.
There is a certain purity and loyalty in Curtis' motivations that also comes through in Shannon's performance. Despite his moments of self-doubt (and there are a few which he goes though in the choices he makes), Curtis has a rigidity when he comes to his family. He does what he does for the safety of his family, and is unconcerned about how this appears to friends or family. Curtis' older brother Kyle (played by Ray McKinnon, The Blind Side) shows up to confront Curtis about what he is doing. The brothers are aware of their family history and their mother's behavior, and through a brief conversation, Kyle seems to quietly and tacitly approve of what Curtis is doing and what his motivations are. The brilliance in Nichols' direction is that moments like this are left to such interpretation, even as Curtis is going down what others would see as an unstable path.
There had been some discussion that Shannon would receive recognition during the awards season for his work in Take Shelter. Hopefully the impact the film has will prove to be a different turn for the actor. On a show where his presence is already formidable, performances like this continue to increase his worth and reputation to the point where people will recognize him more for that than his unique look, which may be the best compliment that you could give him.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony shows off Take Shelter in an AVC encoded 2.35:1 widescreen presentation using the VC-1 codec, and the result is excellent. Image detail is abundant and prevalent through the film, and the exteriors look great, with a multidimensional appearance to the backyards and job sites. When the film reaches its climax, black levels look deep and inky and present a fine contrast. The greens of the outdoors (and yellows of the work vests) look vivid without saturation issues, and flesh tones are accurate without push issues. The image source is pristine as can be and is free of any noise issues, and the disc does tremendous justice to the film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround is superb. While the film does not ask the track to do much sonically, the sound stage is extremely broad, starting from the opening moments when Curtis experiences the first storm and the rain comes down and around in all of the channels, with thunder and lightning getting some support on the low end. Even in other subwoofer scenes when Curtis digs up the backyard to put the container in, while you experience things like the loud hum of the engines, you also hear the ground being dug into and root structures being broken. Dialogue is consistent through the feature and overall the soundtrack does a great job of being accurate and immersive.
A surprising amount of extra material for such a sleepy production. Nichols and Shannon have been friends for a while and their rapport is solid, with joking amongst each other lightly dusted in with other moments and anecdotes about the production or shooting a particular scene. Nichols discusses some specific instruction he gave to the actors also, and the two (particularly Shannon) recount smaller subplots that were excised from the film and sadly are not included on the disc. All in all it is a worthy complement to the track. Shannon returns and joins Whigham for a Q&A session (19:50) where the pair discuss their friendship, which they have had since appearing in the film Tigerland together. The actors talk about how they came to the film (and Shannon's first thoughts on the script), and include some more thoughts on the production, including shooting the third act sequence in the dining hall. The two are slightly deadpan in delivery but the session is fun. There is a Behind the Scenes featurette (10:34) where the cast and crew talk about the film and Nichols gets into the origin and frame of mind he had while writing the script, and the cast shares their opinions on the material and director, and Nichols returns the favor. The set design and visual effects are recounted too, and the CGI gets a moment or two also. Two deleted scenes (5:57) are interesting but ultimately redundant to the final cut, and a trailer (2:11) rounds things out.
It flew under the radar by many people, but just on a high level, the story and performances are excellent, the audio and video qualities are strong, and the supplements are worthwhile and a nice addition to the viewing experience. Its arrival on video makes it appointment viewing for anyone who owns a Blu-ray player.