Michael Shannon, one of today’s finest character actors, is somewhat of an acquired taste for audiences accustomed to the harmless supporting players of typical mainstream movies. No forced joviality nor transparently sinister mannerisms here — just that mask-like visage, that tremulous baritone voice, and the imposing physicality that conveys a catalog of emotions and impressions, most of them disturbing. More often than not, Shannon signifies inner turmoil primed to explode violently. It’s in his face.
Shannon’s square jaw and penetrating glare may be unnerving for the uninitiated, but the Kentucky-born, 37-year old actor, a veteran of the Chicago and London stage scenes as well as TV and indie films since 1992, has clearly found favor with some of the world’s top directors. He was Ashley Judd’s crazy new friend in William Friedkin’s Bug, and a crazily menacing New York hoodlum shaking down Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the late Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Shannon’s peripheral character John Givings, somebody’s crazy son, stole the movie from Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the space of one key scene in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. Werner Herzog used Shannon in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans as a crazed police-evidence-locker custodian, supplier of drugs to the even crazier Nicolas Cage.
But perhaps Shannon’s most sympathetic director, someone who sees past the tormented surface down to the vulnerable, answer-seeking character inside most of the actor’s creations, is Jeff Nichols, writer and director of Shannon’s latest, Take Shelter. Nichols’ “Southern” Shotgun Stories gave Shannon’s mesmerizing screen presence — he ranks in the vicinity of Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich on the intensity scale — some welcome narrative grounding in the story of feuding half-brothers in rural Arkansas. Nichols knows exactly where Shannon is coming from, and the actor responds. Shotgun Stories was one of 2007’s best overlooked films, just as Shannon was one of that year’s finest overlooked actors. But with the tightly plotted psychological character study Take Shelter, both actor and director are ready to step up in class.
Curtis LaForche (Shannon) lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) in the small Ohio town where Curtis works as a foreman in a sand quarry. Young Hannah is deaf, and this means extra medical bills, so Sam supplements Curtis’ income by selling her homemade crafts at flea markets. The economic recession is omnipresent in their lives and those of their neighbors, and so is the vague feeling of unease that grows much less vague and more threatening as the family’s story plays out.
Curtis sees and hears things nobody else does: thunder, ominous clouds, birds flying in Möbius Strip formation, aggressive swarms of insects, etc. He’s plagued by sweat-soaked nightmares of tornadoes and attacking dogs. His fears emerge slowly, at the pace of everyday life, until suddenly it’s obvious to Samantha and everyone else that her husband is behaving strangely. One day Curtis takes out a risky bank loan to build an elaborate addition to the storm cellar in their backyard, and begins stockpiling canned food and gas masks. “There’s a storm coming.”
When his obsession begins to frighten even himself, he visits his mother (Kathy Baker, in one perfect scene), a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic living in a care facility, looking for clues about his increasingly stormy condition. There are none. Curtis is losing it by degrees and he knows it. He gets fired from his job after “borrowing” equipment for his shelter project. Next stop: pills, a scary seizure in the night, and an ugly, cathartic public blowup. In an ordinary melodrama we would fear for Samantha and Hannah, but we’re given to understand that Curtis’ turmoil is directed inwardly and that he would never harm his family. All along, we’re made painfully aware that Curtis’ case is not an eco-horror story nor a social-problem scenario but rather the relatively simple portrait of a man in torment. He has a disaster movie going on in his mind.
Once again as in Shotgun Stories, filmmaker Nichols gives actor Shannon enough time and space to develop his character. The result is a raw, sympathetic tour de force, maybe Shannon’s best screen performance to date, and further indication that Nichols is a seriously skilled director of actors. As red-haired, practical-minded Sam, actress Chastain elaborates on her work in The Tree of Life and The Debt. She not only holds the screen in shots with Shannon but carves her own turf — the nurturing, maternal life-giver who can perform miracles but who is unable to rescue her man from himself. Hats off to Shannon, Chastain, and Nichols. Take Shelter is one of the year’s best.