Into the Abyss
There’s no way to disguise a harrowing descent.
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain
Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Movies about people teetering on the verge of madness are among the most haunting ever made. Because the movies are the most effective artistic medium for simulating reality—they make you believe what you are seeing is real even though every nanosecond has been manufactured—cinematic techniques are basically designed to create a believable world that a masterful director and screenwriter can then systematically take apart before your eyes. When they work, going-crazy movies jangle the nerves, leave you feeling unsettled and discomfited, and get under your skin like a burr.
If art is about provoking a response, then these movies are high art indeed. But the sensations induced by an edge-of-madness movie are largely unpleasant ones; they are memorable in the way a dentist’s needle penetrating the roof of your mouth is memorable. The best of them—I think of Rosemary’s Baby—succeed in part by relieving the stress of watching with a sneaky wit that stays with you along with the memory of the needle.
Now comes along an extraordinary new edge-of-madness movie, Take Shelter, whose leading actor, Michael Shannon, announces himself here as a major screen presence with whom we will be reckoning for decades to come. Shannon’s unforgettable work is matched by the writing and directing of a 32-year-old named Jeff Nichols, who has come out of nowhere to make something of a masterpiece—a perfectly controlled, conceived, and paced work with a genuine intelligence built into its structure, its plotting, and its dialogue.
But while I admire Take Shelter, I can’t say I enjoyed it in any way. As it went along, getting more and more intense and more and more gripping, I could feel my anxiety rising to a point where, if the person a few seats away in the Manhattan movie theater where I saw it had leaned over and quietly offered me a Xanax, I would have loudly demanded two. There is no leavening, no sneaky wit, no moment at which we are released, even temporarily, from our journey into mental and spiritual darkness.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, the foreman of a two-man crew that literally pounds sand in a small town in Ohio. It’s a good job in a frightening economy, and he has a good marriage to a lovely, loving wife named Samantha (the radiant Jessica Chastain from The Tree of Life), with whom he has a beloved five-year-old daughter, deaf since birth. But Curtis is tormented at night by dreams and during the day by visions of the world turning hostile: storms whose raindrops are the color and consistency of motor oil, birds that form ominous patterns in the sky, his own dog and best friend, and then even Samantha, attacking him. He has just turned 35; his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the same age.
The nobility we see in Curtis comes from his deep efforts to push his terrors to one side to be a good father to his daughter and a good husband to his wife. Shannon is a giant of a man, but he gives Curtis an innately gentle quality that adds to the heartbreak of seeing the fear become etched into his face. As he seeks a remedy for what he is sure is a psychiatric disorder, he also pursues a safe harbor from the apocalyptic storm he cannot help but see coming. He has a tornado shelter in the backyard of his modest house and is compelled to expand it. This is a project that will cost this working man $6,000 he doesn’t have, especially when he needs every dollar to help defray the cost of his daughter’s cochlear implant.
The pitch-perfect details of Take Shelter reflect the generally uneasy American mood—co-pays four times more expensive at the drugstore than you expect, dreadful haggling with an insurance company, and, metaphorically, the sense that even with the troubles of the present, there might be a calamity on the horizon which will dwarf them. The simulation of near-madness may not be as agonizing as near-madness itself, but it’s certainly as close as I’d like to come. The only real escape from it is the possibility that the world is coming to an end. What kind of choice is that? Take Shelter is a real achievement. But it’s also a bummer.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.