In a fleeting moment of public discomposure, Curtis LaForche brazenly lashes out at a community event, in front of his family, where he reveals the depths of his interminable dread for all to hear. "There's a storm comin'," he forewarns, "like nothing you have ever seen. And not one of you is prepared for it." He's screaming at the top of his lungs, pacing around in a frenzied, bug-eyed mania. His thoughts have been marinating in a nasty brew of stress and exhaustion; and his warning call is equal parts threatening and disconcerting. Is a storm really coming? Or has the storm already arrived?
Ten years later and Jeff Nichols' first major indepedent feature, Take Shelter, continues to excavate new depths. Despite the swell of gushing reviews and lasting applaud, I managed to sideline this viewing for an entire decade (almost to the day). Let me be clear: that procrastination was a grave mistake. In terms of its storytelling, the work here is decisively subtle; but through dexterous filmmaking and A+ performances, Take Shelter is as easy on the eyes as it is heavy on the soul. Attempting to categorize this film is a waste of time -- Is it a character study? Is it an extended metaphor? Is it a cautionary tale? Is it an exercise in genre? While the answer very well may be (E) All of the above, it's better left unclear.
My enthusiasm for this movie is not tied to anything from a technical perspective specifically, though there is plenty to call attention to and dissect. During my internet sleuthing, I read a lot of film-op-ed-takery on Nichols' allegorical engagement with- and practical embrace of digital cinema. With little ambiguity, Curtis' night terrors and daytime hallucinations occur almost exclusively through the use of digital effects; scenes with apocolyptic imagery, inclamate weather of biblical stature, or propulsive moments of violence become more obviously discernible as the film goes on. Curtis, and the audience, come to understand these visuals at the same time. These moments of on-screen terror and looming damnation have a meta-textual duality: there is something coming -- could that something be a complete digital transition away from celluloid filmmaking?? For some directors in 2011 (and probably still today), this would be a sign of the apocalypse. Because the film was constrained by a very small budget overall (<$5 million), it is with full intention that Curtis' dreams and hallucinations blatantly stick out to the viewer. These scenes should look different, both in the context of the movie, but also because they represent a tectonic shift in filmmaking. Whether or not these images feel "real" is beside the point; what is important is that Nichols understands this underlying angst in his industry of work and is demonstrably riffing on it (or at least contemplating it). This rumination makes it is clear that Nichols has a knack for stirring visual imagery, as well as provocative read-between-the-lines metacommentary.
Before I've gone on too long, it's essential that we talk about the other technical achievements and performances. On top of Nichols' direction, both Adam Stone's cinematography and Julie Monroe's editing deserve recognition (these two also worked on Nichols' other works to follow: Mud in 2012 and both Midnight Special and Loving in 2016). Like all great thrillers, it is essential that the filmmaking seams do not show in an effort to maintain the mystery -- it is a testament to their execution that this film leaves you guessing through the final shot. And of course, the performances are stellar. One of our most capable and accomplished working actresses, Jessica Chastain, delivers a gracefully nuanced portrayal of a supporting but hitting-her-breaking-point wife. She is a perfectly calibrated match and generous screen-sharer alongside Michael Shannon, with whom she has authentic chemistry. In the hands of a lesser performer, her character might've stunted some of the emotional stakes at play. Which brings us to Michael Shannon, who turns in what might be one of the most underrated performances of the decade. Is that hyperbole? I don't think so. There's a poise and innocence to his presence, and he delicately hedges his character's aching distress against his own understated charm. It's jump-off-the-screen acting, even when he's meticulously reserved -- okay but if I'm gushing, it's deserved. If you're not familiar with his work, be sure to check out some of his other more recent career highlights (Revolutionary Road, Mud, Man of Steel, 99 Homes, Midnight Special, Loving, Nocturnal Animals, The Shape of Water, and of course, Knives Out). He has appeared in every single one of Nichols' feature films, which speaks volumes of both individuals. I look forward to their next collaboration.
In a film loaded with dynamic performances, exceptional craft and skillfulness, powerful symbolism and more than enough thematic gumption to go around, there is a lot to relish. Did Nichols spend two hours alluding to climate change, mental illness, conspiracy theories, or something even more sinister (like the overtaking of digital cinema, hah)? Whatever it may be, it's probably better left unsaid. But in the film's final moments, the storm on the horizon is seen not only by the struggling husband and father, but by his entire family. They understand his anxiety, a commonality Curtis never shared with his mother. There is comfort in his newfound validation, even though he and his family sit in the eye of the storm as darkness menacingly rolls in. Despite looking directly into the manifestation of his longstanding dread, whether its literal or figurative, Curtis isn't alone now. And the storm takes shape.
If Michael Shannon's Curtis LaForche is a prophetic voice for the looming gloom and doom of the apocalypse (or just a casual category 5 storm or two), then let me become the prophetic voice for this exceptional beer. Basic City Beer Company's The Sixth Lord is a golden, citrus American IPA with undeniable appeal. Straight out of the Shenandoah Valley, this delicious, frothy pour is hop dominant but no less drinkable. If you find youself waiting out a storm in an underground tornado shelter, make sure you have a sixer of these on standby.
The Sixth Lord IPA - American | 5.3% Basic City Beer Company @basiccitybeer