Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Great movie, not in the sense that I’d want to watch it over and over, but that the doomed feeling of the final scene has stuck with me intensely for the past two weeks. AV Club says the movie’s got an open-ended, ambiguous finale, but I didn’t see it that way. I see Michael Shannon and his family as unambiguously screwed.

Shannon (perfectly cast, his voice a Sling Blade croak, less manic than in Bug) is having apocalyptic dreams of oil-colored rain, bird swarms and terrible storms, becomes obsessed with building a survival shelter in the back yard, with food stocks and gas masks, at the expense of his job and personal relationships. Wife Jessica Chastain (“grace” in The Tree of Life) tries pretty hard, harder than most movie-wives, to understand and help her husband. But he blows the money they need for their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah’s corrective surgery, and she becomes less forgiving. Shannon also gets a helpful employee (Shea Whigham of Splinter, All The Real Girls) into trouble. Finally after he overreacts to a regular summer storm, he agrees to cool it for a while, and the family takes a quiet trip to the coast. Then the oily rain begins.

Adding to the mystery, Shannon’s mom (Kathy Baker, the sexy neighbor in Edward Scissorhands) has long-term psychological problems which began when she was his age. He visits her to compare notes, not-so-helpfully. No help either from brother Ray McKinnon or boss Robert Longstreet, and little from psych counselor LisaGay Hamilton.

R. Koehler in Cinema Scope says it “gives expression to an extremely nervous country” and that each Sundance audience member thought it expressed his own particular conspiracy theory. Nichols sounds like a smart, engaged writer/director from his interview. And I’d been wondering if he watched Todd Haynes’ Safe before making this – he did.

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