A few months ago, I watched Midnight Special on the recommendation of a friend, and I liked it. I’d never heard of Jeff Nichols before that, but I was impressed by everything about the production, despite not being overly wowed by it. It’s definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year (to put that in context, I think I’ve watched about 30 – 40 movies so far in 2016. It’s October 8th, as I write this), and it’s clear to me that Nichols is a name to watch. His upcoming movie Loving, starring Joel Edgerton seems like a risky outside-of-his-box move, and feels like it Oscar-bait, but I’ll trust the guy based on the two movies of his I’ve watched now. Other than Midnight Special, last night I watched his 2012 movie, Take Shelter. I said Loving was outside of his box, and that’s based on seeing these two movies.
While Take Shelter isn’t really thematically similar to Midnight Special, you can see similar strands of DNA in both. Michael Shannon plays a driven father of a young child in both movies, and both plots are propelled by events outside of our normal realm of experience, and how Shannon ‘s character reacts to them. In Midnight Special, the plot is squarely sci-fi. Here, in Take Shelter, it’s harder to define the events as sci-fi or supernatural, but it’s one or the other. Where Shannon in Midnight Special was on the run with his young son, to protect him from twin encroaching forces, here he plays a man plagued with vaguely apocalyptic visions, and an obsessive need to protect his family from them by constructing a backyard underground shelter. Plotwise, it feels a little like the Nicolas Cage movie Knowing.
First things first – Shannon delivers a career-high performance in this movie. I can’t say I’m a fan, but I like him just fine. The first time I saw him was in Bug, and he was great. In Midnight Special he’s really good, and I may go back and rewatch Man of Steel just because he’s in it. It’s safe to say I don’t have the same feelings about Premium Rush, which was probably a career low for everyone involved – I’ll give Shannon a free pass on that one, as I’m sure he knows how bad he was in it too. But his portrayal of Curtis LaForche is fantastic. It helps to have a good writer behind all of it, and in terms of character work, Nichols’s work is exemplary. Both Curtis and his wife Samantha (an excellent, understated performance by Jessica Chastain, who resembles Bryce Dallas Howard from the future) are terrifically well written by Nichols, but Curtis himself is a complex character that can only be brought to life by the right actor performing the right script, and that’s wonderfully apparent here.
It’s an uncomfortable movie to sit through at times, because we either know someone who seems to go out of their way to make things difficult for themselves, or we have been that person at a time in our lives. Curtis isn’t a bad person, but he’s unable to shake himself free of his growing obsession. It ends up damaging almost everything in his life, yet at the same time his goal is a noble one. Regardless of whether or not these dreams and visions are real, all he wants to do is save his family from something bad. In a way, the movie plays like an extended take on Richard Dreyfuss’s obsession with Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both men are not only obsessed by something they cannot understand, they also are painfully aware of how damaging their obsession is becoming, and both movies contains scenes where this realization hits men hard. With more room to play with than Spielberg, Nichols gives Curtis a backstory containing a familial history of mental illness, and here again he makes the right move by showing us that Curtis himself remains cognizant of this. I like this layering of character a lot. I’ve recently been critical of indie movies that don’t do enough character work in the story, because really, the screenplay is the cheapest of a movie’s building blocks. Take Shelter is working on a bigger budget than these movies, for sure, but great character writing doesn’t cost a dime more, just the talent to do it and the understanding of why it’s needed.
As life begins to fall apart for Curtis, I really felt the need to see him somehow make it through it all and come out the end better and stronger for it. Shannon plays the character with so much pathos that some scenes are painful to watch. I found myself dismayed by some of the choices he was making, like taking out a new loan at the bank, that I could hear myself groan inwardly. I didn’t want this guy to fail!
The misdirection of Nichols is really good, especially by introducing the element of the mental illness history, but there is so much ambiguity in the movie that it probably extended the story a little too much. While it doesn’t ever feel ponderous, I did look at the remaining time off and one during act 2. For me personally, that’s a sign of overindulgence in the story. I am a firm believer that all stories have a natural length, but Take Shelter exceeded it. It isn’t that there was “too much plot”, or that he plot itself is particularly complex, just that some plot elements could have been cut and the story would have survived intact. But here this is a small criticism. The main thrust of the movie is the question it generates within the minds of the audience: is Curtis going crazy, as he seems to be, or is he somehow picking up signals from a chaotic universe that his brain can’t fully tune into? The story will keep you guessing because it isn’t resolved fully until the ending, and even then, the movie uses a kind of “unreliable narrator” type device because there are so many dream sequences and visions used throughout that the actual reality of the movie is questionable. Definitely worth watching. If you’ve seen Midnight Special, likely you already have seen it – but if not, watch them both.