It’s not like Michael Shannon isn’t a working actor. He has four films out in 2011, along with his recurring role on Boardwalk Empire. His is a face people recognize, if for no other reason than it’s distinctiveness. But ask someone for their favorite Michael Shannon role, and they won’t have an answer for you. Which is a shame, because Michael Shannon is one of the most exciting actors working today. He is a peerless character actor, as capable as Philip Seymour Hoffman at manipulating his person into intensely varied roles. And in Take Shelter, one of the ultra rare leads offered to the actor, he gives perhaps the best performance I’ve seen this year. Shannon is mostly reserved in his performance, his brow perpetually knit with anxiety, his head down and feet shuffling. But in the moments when Writer/Director Jeff Nichols looses the reins, the actor reveals an understanding of character and performance that seems rarer and rarer in a world often unable to separate “good acting” from “good looking.” Put another way: Shannon has earned a Best Actor Nomination, and probably won’t get one.
Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a 35-year-old family man in a small Ohio town. He works to take care of his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), and finishes most days with his good buddy Dewart (Shea Whigham) and a few beers. But when Curtis begins having prophetic dreams about a horrific storm and the effect it has on the people he loves, his world starts to tilt. Curtis begins obsessively working on a storm shelter in his back yard, risking everything he has for the sense of security it offers him. Though he recognizes his own actions as more than a little strange, the work becomes a compulsion, and everything else becomes a haze.
Take Shelter is intent on instilling its viewers with a sense of dread, and uses a number of different techniques to do so. There’s the mystery of dark rooms and an ominous score, and blurred boundaries between dream and reality, allowing for the ever-present possibility of something bizarre happening. And Nichols has a strong understanding of the current economic climate, and how dramatically the fear of unemployment can preside over the thoughts and actions of a family man. If there is one piece of this film that the Average Joe can appreciate, it’s the tenuousness of a paycheck. Ultimately though, it’s Michael Shannon’s Curtis who does all the leg work. Without his tense, constrained, overwrought performance, the film would be far less than it is. Even Jessica Chastain, who is both a supreme talent and well cast, can do nothing more than play a supporting role. As Shannon goes, so goes Take Shelter.
Which though great for Michael Shannon, isn’t necessarily ideal for the film. Take Shelter unfolds like a Twilight Zone episode, giving all evidence that things are one way, before suddenly shifting. Plenty of audiences will see this switch coming, as any more we’re all prepared for cinematic twists. Still, there’s a few ways the ending of this film could have been handled, and Nichols didn’t land on the best one. The end is cryptic, which is particularly frustrating considering how much this script has been written to lead up to the end. The whole film is an exercise in holding an audience’s attention with equivocation, and while there are a few definitive answers offered up, the far more important considerations, like the future of this family you’ve come to genuinely care about, are left unanswered. Endings are hard, but they’re also the most important element of a film, and this seems to be one of those unfortunate cases where the disappointment of the ending determines much of the take away.
No matter how disappointing the ending, Michael Shannon has put together a spectacular performance. And it’s important to note that this is not a script capable of enhancing its lead. If you throw Matthew McConaughey or Kyle Chandler (two very capable, blue-collar actors) into this role, you don’t get anything approaching what Michael Shannon has done with it. On paper, the character is simply close-mouthed and hangdogged, a standard Midwestern patriarch. Nichols’ coup was landing Shannon, an actor so expressive he can spend an hour and a half suggesting a mountain of intensity, before finally letting it loose in an emotional torrent twice as impressive as the story’s much-discussed atmospheric climax. With talent like his, it shouldn’t be enough that Michael Shannon is paying his bills. His is a name anybody with a vested interest in film needs to know.