When I went to see Take Shelter I had some preconceptions in my head. The story and the appearance of Shannon in the lead meant that we were probably going to be seeing a personal and introspective story of a man going through his own delusions and demons, ending up giving a performance that would be pretty strung out and on the edge.
Well there are some truths to that in this film, but it's also a much more considered and careful performance from Shannon and as a complete package we are treated to a completely fascinating film that layers on the tension to a point where you can hardly take it, and then delivers more. Take Shelter is a fantastic film for almost the entirety, faltering in only a few places and providing a thought provoking story and portrayal of the lead character.
If I am being honest those preconceptions I had of the film early on were much more than I said above, I really had thought it out quickly that we were going to see the family man cracking up mentally, seeing visions of something that wouldn't happen, creating a storm shelter, pulling his family into his nightmare, and not letting them out at the end of it. It's a plot line that seemed to scream at my wife and I when we saw the trailer, and that surprises me as my wife doesn't see nearly as many films as I do, so it does show that the suggestion was a strong one.
However, and here's where I can bin those ideas right now, the film does not play like that, and one of the powerful aspects of the film is that it never really attempted to set me straight until very late on in the film, it left me with doubt about what the character was going to do and what was really happening right to the end of the final act - and I refer to the end of the film in that way because there is another ending after the final act ends.
Forgetting about that final ending which I'll come to later, the story is very well written, crafted and performed for almost the entirety of the rest of the film, there is a problem in the middle of the film which I'll come back to, but let's stick with the positives for now.
The film is a powerful one and builds the tension and suspense superbly well. I'm not sure I can get across to you just how well the film achieves this, for during the closing act I actually felt sick with nervous tension and frustration. The film really managed to affect me and get me so wound up about what was going to happen to the characters. It was helped in no small part by the fact that it managed to keep me uncertain about what was and what could be happening from the smallest moments to the biggest plot arcs. I was never entirely sure it was going to play out the way I thought, or rather the way I thought for that moment for the film managed to make me keep changing my mind about what could happen. I just really wasn't sure, and that was a great feeling.
The film doesn't overplay anything in the visuals or the filming style. There are some scenes which show some hyper-real moments which could well be visions, but they are kept rooted in the real world and the effects never overpower the real actors in the scene. That's another strong aspect of the film; it keeps the focus on the characters and their relationships, never turning into something bigger, which it could so easily do.
The building of the lead character's story is really well executed. The scenes where the character sees the coming storm aren't played too often, nor are they played to give you a clear idea of what exactly is happening, and the fact that it builds a clear uncertainty in the character's mind about the people around him and their motives is enough to unsettle us and provide a similar level of uncertainty.
I loved the way his feelings against the dog built and escalated from that first violent dream, a dream that we never revisit but see the side effects of. You can tell that something more has happened since the first dream as his attitude towards the dog escalates, and so when we see he sees his wife in a dream and in the morning he reacts strangely towards her, it's clear that something more has happened that we didn't see. It could have so easily over told and overplayed these moments of the dream and ruined the build up of the tension and the involvement of the audience but it showed us just the right amount of detail.
The story does a great job of introducing the plot line of mental illness and touching on the problems that people face when they are coming to terms with a potential illness, nowhere is it summed up better than when he sits down to talk with his new counsellor, the offhand comments he delivers, and the opening questions.
Like the dreams this thread of the film is brought in delicately and not dropped in on us with all the facts. We are given clues, moments, and left to understand the rest for ourselves and for the most part make up our own minds. It's a feature of the story throughout the film, never over explaining the story and letting our minds do a lot of the work.
However, there are problems with this as well and I struggled around the middle of the film which did seem to drag a little and could have done with picking up the pace and moving the film forward. One of my biggest issues was that everyone seems to know what's happening with the lead character and yet no one does anything. The wife even realises that she and the baby could be in danger, that he's already risked everything they have including the chance for the daughter to have her life changing operation, and she just continues on after a night away. There's not even the slightest attempt to do something to help the character or to rectify any of the problems he's created, not even to talk to him about them and try and persuade him to change them. This becomes hugely frustrating.
It's also frustrating that the character himself seems to understand a lot of what could be happening to him and he struggles to do anything about it. Perhaps this could be one of the aspects of the illness he might be affected by, but one moment he's acknowledging there might be something wrong with him and the next he's ignoring it and continuing with his obsession.
I found these aspects of the film confusing and frustrating, and I just wished some of the characters would react more to him and do something.
The ending of the film is a two tiered affair that has the best and worst moments of the film, delivering utter genius and a complete turnaround that seems to throw away everything that the film as worked on. The first ending is the most powerful part of the film for both lead characters, the husband and the wife go head to head at the height of their performances in a hugely powerful, tense and claustrophobic sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat. It's a fantastic sequence to end the tension of the film and deliver a superb ending with a great metaphor for the plot.
Well I say superb, but I did feel a little disappointed at the reveal at the end as the camera spins around, and more than that I was thoroughly confused when I saw that there was an ending after what I thought was a complete film. This second ending as I'm calling it throws the whole film on its head and not in a good way either. We've been led to believe one thing about the film, and more than that shown and delivered it all the way to the previous scene, and now we're being told it was something different.
It has the effect of turning a film that I thought was a rather interesting look on mental illness into something more akin to a fantasy nigh on science fiction film which just doesn't sit well with what we had been watching before this point. It's also thoroughly confusing and distracting from all the good things that the film has delivered to that point. Personally I think it's a disastrous decision for the film, but there's so much before this that is good that you can manage to just forget it and pretend it ended the scene before, we have.
Michael Shannon is just as good as ever in this role, he's a much underrated actor even with his slow and mumbled performance that he is often associated with, it does disguise a great actor who makes this performance seem like a complete breeze for him. There wasn't a hint of acting and he really drew me into the character and made me believe, as well as helped keep that uncertainty of what was going to happen.
Jessica Chastain is equally as strong, and I loved the fact that she has more to do than the usual female lead. She is a great match to Shannon's style and is just as convincing and natural in her performance, I was very taken with her when she was on screen and was just as drawn to her strong emotional role. She's a hell of an actress and this is another film where she proves it.
Take Shelter is a clever film that is really well written and delivered with great performances from the two leads of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. They are excellent in their roles and coupled with the strong and intelligent story you'll be sucked in and filled with nervous tension and frustration come the final act.
It could do with some tidying up and pushing forward of the story in the middle of the film, and that final ending could have been dropped totally to provide a much better film, but you'll easily forgive these mistakes for the strength of the rest of the film and for the way Shannon's character will make you feel along his journey.