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What Does a Prophet Look Like?

Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter
What Does a Prophet Look Like?

Take Shelter may have been the best movie to be entirely snubbed in the awards season last year—except that from Austin to Cannes it won 33 awards and was nominated for 17 others. In other words, the only awards that get remembered by anyone other than the filmmakers and their families are the Oscars, the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Take Shelter got no recognition of any kind there. I believe this remarkable movie was ignored because the Academy largely distances itself from a certain type of film, and Shelter was an example of that type par excellence: the disturbing movie.

Take Shelter resists characterization by the typical genre nomenclature of drama, horror, sci-fi, war, thriller, romance, etc. Its plot contains elements of sci-fi, but it takes place mostly in the present in the farmlands of Ohio. Its main character, Curtis, an ordinary construction worker played by the superb Michael Shannon, demonstrates remarkable depths of fear, love and courage, but Take Shelter is no horror flick, love story or war drama. The best thing to point out about the movie is perhaps what it is not: it is certainly not a comedy. But even there, we usually oppose “tragedy” to “comedy,” and it is no tragedy either.

What Take Shelter is is a disturbing movie, one of those films that frightens the viewer from the start, and yet they don’t really know why. Much of this is due to the haunting score, original music by Dave Wingo (George Washington, All the Real Girls), which keeps the movie in a constant state of tension, and from the camera and editing work, which are both tight and never without furthering the purposes of the film. Together these three elements often weave an experience of disquiet from almost nothing on the screen. For instance, in one of the opening scenes of the movie we cut from a very normal family breakfast scene to Curtis coming out of the garage, where we have already seen him standing earlier, while a terribly threatening sky drops an oily rain upon him. Though we are not certain, we are pretty sure the earlier scene is Curtis’s dream, not really a nightmare, but not a pleasant dream either. Just before the cut, music begins, which we have already heard in the dream. The cut is to the same length, angle and direction of shot in which we first saw Curtis in the dream. In this shot he is not there, but another quick cut pans to follow him out of the garage to his truck parked in the driveway. He is simply on his way to another day of work. But the camera doesn’t stop panning, when he moves to get into his truck; the haunting music doesn’t stop either. Both continue on the same line, away from Curtis and the truck and up through the trees to the sky, which is blue and sunny with only a wisp of cloud. So in one brief transitional scene with no dialogue, a world of foreboding transfers to the audience, a foreboding that portends supernatural environmental destruction coming from the sky.

The story line of Take Shelter is best left untold. Suffice it to say that Curtis’s life becomes consumed with the meaning of his ever increasingly terrifying dreams of disaster, and the twin problems of his uncertainty about the truth of his “visions” (or is he going mad?) and his responsibility to his family, friends and whoever would listen if the storm really is coming, dominate the suspense in the story. Even the ending is enigmatic and impossible to classify. While it is far from sad or tragic in that many of the most important tensions in the film are resolved both positively and even redemptively, the film’s final words, “Sam?” “OK.” are accompanied by such staggering images that viewers are filled with awe and majesty, even as they are consumed by dread and terror.

This movie precipitates a discussion of the nature of prophecy, of the eschatological question of what the end of time will be like, and of the ramifications of being bestowed with a prophetic message for one’s home life, friendships and mental health. Many have thought Take Shelter to be a parable about current societal instabilities of all kinds: the obvious environmental concerns, but even financial and political ones as well. While no particular events define the exact time of the movie, the theme of impending environmental disaster is prominent, not only in Curtis’s dreams but also in television reports of waste carrying train wrecks and innocuous discussions of environmental disasters.

Take Shelter is a fertile ground for reaping lots of insights from discussions framed in numerous ways. The subtlety of its performances and the depths of its thematic layers can lead to discussions of the environment, of work relationships, of family dynamics, of the role of the church in situations like this (there is a crucial scene at a church supper), of the importance of trust—all are touched on by a variety of characters, all of whom are portrayed by actors at the top of their games. Shannon and Shea Wigham, stars of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and Jessica Chastain, possibly the best actress working today, turn in extraordinary performances, and the writing—the script is the work of Jeff Nichols, the director—matches their expertise.

From theme to story to cinematic experience, Take Shelter deserves the awards it did win. Don’t miss it.

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