Take Shelter 

The secret storm of Michael Shannon

Take Shelter, the controversial new drama about a man's biblical-proportion paranoia, is, for me, the first film that defines the 21st century. Sure, we have seen more than 1,000 movies come and go since the turn of the millennium. But here we have a film for our times. In its simplest of settings (rural Ohio), and its gentlest of characters (loving man, woman and child), we find a probing examination of our greatest fear--fear itself.

Controversy has swirled around Take Shelter, not unlike the massive storm clouds that often frame the movie. A raging debate ensued when I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Some critics despised the ending. For the record, I love it. It's a shocker, sure, but it's masterfully filmed. And I won't tell you anything about it. That's how much I want you to see this movie.

Michael Shannon, the awkwardly tall and upwardly talented Oscar nominee (Revolutionary Road) plays Curtis LaForche, a hard-working construction laborer and gentle, loving husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and dad to 6-year-old Hannah (Natasha Randall).

Shannon is a wonder. His deeply set eyes and pursed lips (which barely crack open when he speaks) tell us so much with so few words. Rather than erupt when he is beset by daydreams and nightmares of tragedy (tornadoes, animal attacks), he retreats to quiet desperation while teetering on the brink of sanity.

And here is the genius of writer-director Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter could have easily deteriorated in to a pretty good psychological tale of horror. But instead the film serves as a touchingly accurate portrayal of mental illness and the national scandal that is the lack of access to health care in rural America.

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Chastain is as talented as she is lovely. This has turned into a banner year for the young actress, with Take Shelter following star turns in Tree of Life, The Debt and The Help. Her performance as Samantha expertly complements Shannon's. The young couple has a detailed plan of using their hard-earned savings for a cochlear ear implant for their daughter, who is deaf. But when Curtis drains their account to build a storm shelter and his recklessness results in the loss of his job (and medical benefits), Samantha's anger and heartbreak are almost too personal to bear watching.

Ultimately the massing storm clouds that haunt Curtis are metaphorical. What defines our 21st century more than our fears? Foreclosures, unemployment lines, hunger and homelessness? Our days challenge us to balance our domestic normalcy with terrorism. Disasters, natural or man-made, haunt us all.

But Take Shelter is never overt. It depicts our middle-American lives with respect, precision and even affection. That's why the nightmares that terrorize Curtis (and perhaps threaten us all) are so real. Take stock in Take Shelter. It is a film for the ages.

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