There are certain dangers in making a film about someone with a mental disorder. In one direction you end up as a cloying mess of cheap, manipulative emotions, while the other direction will surely end up as an over-the-top, silly, cliche'd mess of its own. Thankfully, with Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols keeps an even keel throughout his film, never swaying up or down, left or right, instead going slowly but surely down the center of his otherwise quite insane film. But, setting aside my inner auteurist, the real credit here needs to go to Michael Shannon.
As a man who begins to have visions and delusions, and is afraid of becoming schizophrenic like his mother, Shannon's hulking frame (the actor is 6'3" but we imagine him even larger) treads down that aforementioned center line, while seemingly apocalyptic visions run ram shod all around him - never sure if it is he or his visions that are the real danger. It is this quite astonishing actor who keeps the film grounded while everything is simultaneously going to a veritable dream-like shit. He is surely crazy, or at least crazed, but like in the sadly overlooked 2006 thriller Bug, his insanity is trapped inside a certain sense of reality.
Nichols, whose 2007's Shotgun Stories was an acting playground for Shannon, and whose upcoming Mud promises to do the same, has formed a quite formidable bond with the actor (he has never made a movie without Shannon in front of his lens) and it shows ten and twenty fold in Take Shelter. Shannon, who has an Oscar nomination for his manic turn in Revolutionary Road and can be seen on Martin Scorsese's stunning HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, is one of those actors who has found a niche for his uniquely awkward acting style.
This niche may keep him locked away in roles of insanity, which would be a shame considering his prolific talents, but damned if he doesn't play crazy better than just about anyone else out there. And I am talking a realistic crazy, not one of those over-the-top blowhard crazies that we see out of certain contemporary actors who shall remain nameless here (Cage, Walken, Malkovich, Rush, Busey, Nicholson & McDowell - sorry, couldn't help myself). Of course, there is room for many kinds of crazy in cinema (and I quite like most of the actors in the above parenthetical name-dropping) but Shannon takes his mentalities to a place of subtle brilliance.
And even though the film does play off of typical cliches at times, and many of the film's plot-lines go exactly where one would expect them to go, between Shannon's nuanced crazy and Nichols' directorial formalism and subtlety, and some pretty, as the fanboys might say, kickass scenes (the most intense one taking place at the seemingly simple task of opening a lock), Take Shelter is one of the most disarming films of the year. And as for that ending.....well, you will just have to see it to believe it. [11/21/11]