Director William Friedkin made a handful of landmark films in the 70’s and secured his spot as one of the heavyweights of that era. His output beyond that decade has been inconsistent and often disappointing. I missed Bug (2006) in it’s theatrical run and only discovered it recently. If nothing else, for me, it was a major return to form for Friedkin. There is a palpable sense of creative energy and confidence throughout.
Living in a run down motel and waiting tables at a local bar is Agnes White (Ashley Judd). Her life has been a steady stream of bad decisions, unbearable guilt and deep rooted pain. She fears the return of her ex (Harry Connick Jr) who has been recently released from prison. Her one friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) stops in one night to party a little and brings along her new friend Pete (Michael Shannon). Pete is quiet, unassuming and a little odd. Agnes is drawn to his gentleness and sincerity. Pete is a wounded soul as well and he feels like perhaps he could trust Agnes with his secrets. And what secrets he has. By film’s end all involved will be thrust into the darkest corners of paranoia and fear.
Tracy Letts adapted his successful play for the screen. Friedkin manages to take this small, essentially one set production and inject it with a genuine cinematic sensibility (aided in no small part by sound designer Steve Boeddeker and D.P. Micahel Grady). Friedkin has made an almost musical film; it rises steadily and then explodes much like Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are more than up to the challenge of carrying this film. Shannon’s presence, in particular, dominates the film. With his large eyes, dominating physique and often diffident voice he projects a mixture of gentleness and danger. There is a raw, manic telepathy going on between the two leads and their total commitment to the bombastic finale is both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s scary stuff. You have been warned. It’s worth mentioning that Friedkin has just recently released Killer Joe which also happens to be a play written by Letts.
Michael Shannon also stars in Take Shelter; a character study and cautionary tale that expertly plays on our own fears of our big, scary world and how that affects a simple man just trying to live a simple life.
Curtis (Michael Shannon) has a lovely wife and daughter, a comfortable house and a steady job. He has a modest but seemingly happy life. All of this is put into harms way by something that is coming. The frustrating part is that Curtis doesn’t know what it is but the stormy skies and the menacing flocks of birds seem to be warning him on daily basis. The warnings start becoming more severe. Moreover, no one but Curtis seems to see or hear these frightening displays of nature. And then there are his nightmares. Nightmares that afflict him unmercifully; literally leaving their mark on him. His instinct to protect his family from the coming horror begins in subtle stages and snowballs into obsession and paranoia. This culminates in Curtis building an underground storm shelter in their back yard.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols does not always go for the obvious here. One nice touch is that instead of just letting Curtis get lost in the mazes of his mind and watching him unravel; Curtis is keenly aware that this could be a mental disorder and he tries his best to address it. Michael Shannon is, once again, amazing at showing a man getting progressively eaten alive by his thoughts and fears. Equally engaging is Jessica Chastain as Curtis’ patient wife Samantha. Chastain is one of the best actresses you’ve never heard of working today (see Tree of Life). There is enormous empathy and understatement throughout Take Shelter where other filmmakers would have gone for something more shocking and immediate. A very satisfying film.