The Mayans, the wise race of ancients who created hot cocoa, set December 21st, 2012 as the end date of their Calendar, which the intelligent and logical amongst us know signifies the day the world will end, presumably at 12:21:12am, Mountain Time. From now until zero date, we will explore the 50 films you need to watch before the entire world perishes. We don’t have much time, so be content, be prepared, be entertained.
The Film: Take Shelter (2011)
Curtis LaForche (played by Michael Shannon) lives a relatively uneventful, normal small town life. He and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain in one of many standout performances in a quite busy 2011 year in film) get by on his income as a construction worker and her selling of homemade pillows at a flea market. Despite their financial troubles trying to afford a surgical procedure to aid their young daughter’s hearing disability the two don’t have much in the way of a disheartened life. Then, Curtis gets struck with a nightmarish vision of a looming mega-storm that could represent the apocalypse. Initially, he brushes it aside as just a terrible dream, but as the experiences get increasingly more frequent, personally violent, and unsettlingly ‘real’ Curtis decides to throw caution to the wind and prepare for his family for what he believes to be an imminent threat of a frightening, indescribable major disaster. As he succumbs further and further to his visions Curtis also battles the known reality that paranoid schizophrenia is not foreign to his family’s history and it all culminates in a personal fight for him to either accept that he may be sick, or have faith that he is right and is therefore doing the right thing for his family; despite Samantha’s lack of understanding to see him make such drastic decisions at the cost of their future.
The Review: Take Shelter is a rare breed of independent, small pictures with large (in this case, apocalyptic) aspirations that fully succeed with their intentions. Its focus is on the struggles of one man and how his silent approach to coping with the uncertainties of his psychological experiences is causing an alienation and misunderstood trouble in his home, but the fears of Curtis are of monumental consequences. It isn’t the end of the world by some natural event like a meteor collision, it’s something much more sinister and inexplicably evil and he is the only one who appears to be aware of it on the horizon. It’s this paranoia experienced only by him and how his family chooses to deal with it that speaks to the film’s central theme of faith and devotion.
Much of the film’s success lies on the shoulders of its two leads, and more pin-pointedly at Michael Shannon. Shannon displays a mastery of making Curtis’s bothered stoicism not appear wooden; and, more importantly, empathetic. You feel for him, because he acts like a lot of us. He bundles in everything he’s feeling and experiencing because he’s afraid of the alarm it would cause to friends and, quite understandably, the reaction he might get from his wife. Telling your partner you’re having visions of the end of the world via something terrifying and horrific is one thing unto itself, but adding on that you think you need to use all your money (the money previously dedicated to helping cure your daughter’s handicap nonetheless) and manpower to bulk up the storm shelter in your backyard to prepare for something that may be a complete figment of an imagination of a man with paranoid schizophrenia in his bloodline is well past the breaking point of understanding for almost any loved one. At least, so we would think.
However, it is Jessica Chastain in the role of Samantha that provides the film’s freshest breath of air. The character is written in a way to be confused (as anyone would be at the sight of her husband going insane), but not without compassion. She really doesn’t know what to do, but she does feel that she can’t abandon her husband and it’s her that provides the support for Curtis at his most explosive and painful moments – and Chastain does just as well on the side of conflicted nurture as Shannon does on masking trouble.
For as small a picture as Take Shelter is it is an exercise in how you can make something small in focus resonate in a very profoundly large way. It was made on a paltry $1 million budget and while everything about it looks as understated as the budget would suggest the constant doom and uneasiness of Curtis’s visions feel immensely grandiose on a level that the film’s more expensive contemporaries don’t even approach. Director Jeff Nichols does a marvelous job of creating a gloomy atmosphere that fills in the gap between the small scale and the desired scope while maintaining the personable benefits one gets from experiencing a story focused on one particular person and his family. It’s the opposite of a large-scale production with emotional undertones; it’s a very affectionate story with undertones of epic, biblically fear-inducing proportions.
But why spend 120 minutes watching this film when you only have 352,800 minutes left alive?
For an obvious excuse, if you want to see what you should do to prepare for the end of the world if you’re going to attempt to make it through then you should watch Curtis LaForche beef up his backyard tornado shelter. We don’t know how the world is going to end, the Mayans just claim that 12/21/12 21:12 and 12 seconds will be our end, so putting some stock in a self-made storm shelter isn’t a bad idea because it just might save you from something huge that isn’t cataclysmic.
However, if you’re lucky enough to not be alone on 12/21, then Take Shelter is a perfect companion to remind you that even when faced with uncertainty in trust you can still have faith in the person choosing to stand next to you.