Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jeff Nichols: Perfect Paranoia (Take Shelter)

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

The creeping collective fear and loathing of Armageddon, mental illness and the future plays out in subtly riveting tones in new American master Jeff Nichols' ferocious new film, Take Shelter. Bolstered by a tour de force performance from one of our greatest contemporary actors, Michael Shannon, this is a movie that gets everything right.

Seeping into our consciousness like the chemical rain threatening the mid-western town we find ourselves in, Nichols commands every frame with a totality which is exhilarating and frightening. Shannon's husband/father becomes troubled by startling storm weather and jarring death dreams that plague him at every turn. His sweet, soft spoken wife (an amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter watch helplessly as he slides into a maniacal tail spin. But the great thing about the picture is its refusal to cave in to audience expectation. Nichols never articulates whether this is doomsday or a case of paranoid schizophrenia. That ambiguity, calling into question our own perceptions of reality, marks this as a masterpiece.

Dream and waking blend imperceptibly, punctuated by astute details of middle-American family life. Shannon's face is a mask of repression and fragility that cuts to the bone. Chastain's tenuity acts as a translucent mirror to Shannon's escalating furor. Adam Stone's cinematography is a thing of debilitating beauty, marking him as an artist to watch. David Wingo's luxuriously menacing score outlines the progression of the plot ethereally.

Nichols emerged a few years back with the austere Shakespearian redneck opus Shotgun Stories, one of the best American directorial debuts of the last decade. Like any supreme sophomore effort, Take Shelter combines the strengths of his first film and expands on them. I was reminded of Malick, 70s Spielberg, Polanski and Stephen King by the textural and thematic blossoming here. I was also reminded of some of my favorite movies of the past twenty years, especially David Fincher's masterpiece Fight Club (1999) and Mary Harron's sublime American Psycho (2000), both of which similarly skewed perception while touching on the darkness inherent in masculinity.

Take Shelter breathlessly exists as a propulsive piece of art in its own right. By mastering perfect paranoia, Jeff Nichols has announced himself as one of our country's most gifted auteurs.

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