Take Shelter & Snowtown

Written by 

Watchingcattle on Take Shelter & Snowtown (plus vampires, werewolves and horror movies in general).

{jb_dropcap}S{/jb_dropcap}ummer is gone kids. It's cold and it's raining and there is a nip in the air when I wake up in my draughty flat. Still no ice and no fucking snow so that's good, but thankfully also no more big summer bolloxbusters. Yay. And so we set forth into the distinctly adult section of the year. Every film you see from now until January will basically have a poster covered in critical praise and a few of those feathery looking greek headdress lads telling you what festivals the film won awards at and OOOOH ain't it great? Well yes actually, it fucking is. I love this time of year. It's cold and miserable and if you're lucky you can see a Scandinavian masterpiece which makes you feel like total shit for the whole week and before you ask I do love the Smiths and I do love the Cure and I do wear black and I did go to art school, what of it fuck face?

Now before discussing the following movies I feel I should say that I don't like horror movies. I don't hate them but I've always felt that they don't actually speak to me as an adult. It seems their sole purpose is to scare the shite out of you as a kid when you couldn't actually legally see the thing in the cinema because it was certified 18s and you were only 10, so the experience kind of skipped me. We didn't have a video player 'til I was at least twelve and by then I was a bit bored of horror movies because they were only ever on really late and frankly I'd seen way scarier shit on Channel 4 at around the same time. The Channel 4 stuff wasn't so much horror as just fucking weird. I mean you never forget your first Troma film or Twin Peaks episode so, for me, 'horror' peaked with David Cronenberg's The Fly or John Carpenter's The Thing which my Da demanded we watch one Christmas after he'd had a few. I thought "oh no it's a pile of piss from the 70s fuck this"...two hours later there was a new found respect for the old man and a new love of Mr. Carpenter which he has since lost time. I know that horror movies have good things going for them, but I just don't get it. I like the old ones like The Birds or Invasion of the Body Snatchers or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre where there was a real craft being honed, tension built up and released in a way that made an audience feel uncomfortable, but overall I just admire them more than love them. There's lots you can take from a horror movie and use in a regular non-horror movie (say Silence Of The Lambs or Dead Mans Shoes for example) and when this works I'm very pleased but generally I'd rather not watch pointless torture porn survival horror because I've seen Nanking Nanking and frankly there's nothing shocking or scary about Hostel whereas the former is fucking filth and it fucking happened.

That's where fear lies as an adult really. Vampires aren't scary - mortgages are. Werewolves aren't scary but the prospect of being slashed by some teenage thick with two razor blades taped to a 50p is.

Take Shelter is a film by Jeff Nichols and it takes a rummage in the horror movie bag of tricks to tell a story about a man plagued by visions. But is it a horror movie ? Is it fuck.

Michael Shannon is the lead here. You will know Shannon as the guy who looks a bit hulking-ly mental, seems to always have a limp, mumbles a lot and is almost always considerably better than the material he's working with. He's the best thing about Boardwalk Empire and he's the only reason to see Revolutionary Road. Here he plays the father and husband to a very nice lady and a recently deaf daughter. He works in construction, has a nice family, nice home, he lives in a town that's nice. Y'know, he's regular - you get the impression he takes a shit at 6:30pm every night and it's always between three and four on the Bristol Stool Chart. Yes, regularity is great. But then he starts having nightmares about storms and his life turns to shit.

Nothing here is particularly new. What do the visions mean? Is he going crazy? What's going to happen next? And yes, the visions are quite frightening, the special effects are excellent and there is ample build up of tension in the opening thirty minutes or so. But then a strange thing happens. Having set up the premise and borrowed heavily from the narrative of horror movies or psychological thrillers (the second most awful film genre behind comedy thrillers) he simply takes the foot off the gas and allows the narrative and its leads to deal with the issues of mental illness as maturely as a man in his mid thirties is likely to. This is a reasonable man dealing with very heavy issues indeed and the film casually sidesteps the usual movie pitfalls of "I'm a man damn it! I ain't going to see a fucking doctor" or "I know I'll go see a psychic instead of a trained professional". Nichols is still making a kind of genre film, he's just doing it without the clunks and clanks of silliness required to drive a plot down a more grizzly path. For that alone, it must be admired. In saying that, the couple beside me walked out around the time that the movie shifts gears, so what do I know?

Michael Shannon is excellent in the main role and Jessica Chastain is equally excellent as a completely believable loving wife. They have to be because they are basically in every single scene. This film is also beautiful to look at and after the initial slow down you do get the feeling that this is the kind of film that David Cronenberg used to make about the body. Here it's the mind that is being assaulted and twisted and, thanks to Shannon's fine work and the subtle special effects which create brilliant skies and storms for Shannon to be terrified by, it's easy to go along with everything. It's subtle when it has to be and sprinkles a little fright here and there for good measure. Of course there is a subtext here - storms are easy metaphors and the point of the film, it seems, is to create in the viewer the sense of unease at the future rather than any horror movie cliche about what lurks under your bed. This is an adult movie about fear and disorder by and for adults. It won't be to everyones taste and for me it stuck around about 10 minutes longer than it had to and of course as with most films of it's ilk it's reach slightly exceeds it's grasp so it's not completely satisfying nor could it ever be given it's subject matter. This is still powerful, emotional film making. Chastaine and Shannon should clear their mantles in expectation of awards and you do get the best storm as metaphor scenes since A Serious Man...so this is recommended.

Next up, more horror. This time prepare to be absolutely fucking terrified.

Once, while my brain was enhanced in its articulate thinking by a certain acidic compound which gives you the power of a thousand years of deep and utterly sensible joyous thought followed by hours of discomfort, introspective nightmares and the feeling that food of any kind is the enemy (you know the compound of which I speak) I came to the conclusion that there were only two kinds of people on the planet that caused harm to others. Vampires and Werewolves. It's the exact kind of thought you have while sitting in a country pub watching the curtains crawl across the ceiling and enjoying the fact that outside the skylight you can see the star field screen saver from your PC flying around and assume that the bar has taken flight through the cosmos. I believed then that Werewolves were simply normal good folks bitten by the cruelty of others who succumbed occasionally to thoughts of evil (as we all do) but didn't have the strength to keep from acting upon them. In Ireland we have a lot of Werewolves as everyone has had there psyche twisted by the shitiness of our schools, hospitals, parenting, public transport - pick one. Therefore add the demon drink and the lack of any culture outside of drinking and bang! Instant Werewolves.

The Vampire on the other hand is the scourge of the normal man. He or often she, is a seductive, charismatic, enigmatic evil. They have to be invited in, they suck the life out of you and yet you still want them in your life. They make things more interesting and soon they're saying "hang on to this big black bag, don't tell anyone and I'll get it from you in a few days" or "my husbands a bastard can you loan me some money...I'll pay you back, I swear". And before you know it you're holding the gun or the hammer and the blood is still wet on it and they're saying "Here hide this" and they'll owe you a debt of gratitude forever, but you'll never get that debt repaid because it's not in their nature. There's one in every classroom and on every housing estate in Ireland. You don't know they're there but trust me someone you know knows him/her.

And that's how myths and metaphors get started really. You call it the Mafia and someone else calls it a coven of Vampires sucking the life out of the neighbourhoods somewhere and lustfully every kid on the block wants in. You call it a crime of passion and he's a fucking monster and really it's someone who's never gotten over that bullying somewhere along the line or that infidelity or has been passed over for promotion or, whatever. Then they snap and in the morning they're back to their broken selves and deep down they want to get caught because it was never in them in the first place. And they know they're now a fucking monster. None of which excuses the existence of a certain trilogy, which by the way seems to have four fucking films in it? Look up the word 'trilogy', you cunts.

Snowtown is Australian. Don't let that put you off.

Australia has produced some truly great movies in the past. I cannot recommend last years Animal Kingdom enough. It's absolutely brilliant. Snowtown begins in a similar area of Australia. It's the outer suburbs and life here is grim. Poverty is normality and there really is a sense in every frame that this place is the end of the world. Derelict and empty the screen is constantly awash with images which set a real tone of desolation. In many ways this is similar to the equally grim and brilliant Frozen River which I also whole heartedly recommend. This is the home of the Vlassakis family - a lone, long suffering mother and three sons. Without wanting to reveal any of the plot, suffice to say right from the get go there is something deeply, deeply wrong. There is little space here for any levity here. Humanity yes, but the darkest acts of humanity and plenty of raw emotion. Soon a father figure appears in the form of John Bunting. Again, I don't want to give away the plot but this is a true story and Bunting is Australia's most famous serial killer (and Vampiric motherfucker) so chances are I'm not going too far by introducing him as such. Bunting becomes the family's de-facto father...he's charming, charismatic and seemingly honest and decent. He takes a special interest in the eldest boy Jamie and wants to rid the scum from the streets of his community by starting a sort of deranged neighbourhood watch. Of course, things go down the fucking pan as the family enter a living, or barely living hell, and you are right there watching and feeling every frame of it.

This is a film with a simple narrative, which is for the best. There is a socio-political statement to be made in here, when at one stage Bunting points out that no one cares about his victims - a lesser film might try to get across some message of why and place a context on the dispossessed poverty of the Australia presented here. There is no need. It exists here, as it does everywhere. Bunting entices people from his community towards his point of view through small meetings in which he manipulates and preys on them by rousing their fears. Again this is handled as a matter-of-fact. Rather than trying to explain Bunting the film just wants you to experience him. This film is about characters and tone. That tone is dark, brooding and utterly hopeless. Photographed as an uncompromisingly grim wasteland the images here are unforgettable and the characters are superbly written and the actors are absolutely flawless. In a fair world Lucas Pittaway and Daniel Henshall wouldn't just win awards they'd be bronzed and given away as awards to lesser actors to remind them of just how fucking good some actors actually are.

Director Justin Kurzell knows how to move the film along at a deliberately snail-ish pace and presents the shocks and violence so slowly that some scenes (actually most scenes) are inescapable. The film often grinds to a virtual halt and presents scenes so shocking that you can't help but feel utterly uncomfortable and almost violated. It's worth pointing out at this point that I counted about twelve walkouts during this so it will not be for everyone. Should you stay to the finale you will feel drained and dejected. In one scene a boy feeds a rat to a snake and I couldn't help but feel that I was that snake. The film curled around me and crushed all the air from me. This is a film which is not easily forgotten. Powerful and exhausting and highly recommended.

And if you thought I was going to write about Twilight fucking shame on you.

More in Music Reviews

Bill Wells - Lemondale

Dara Higgins checks out Bill Wells' Lemdondale, the product of a single day's recording in Tokyo with 14 disparate musicians. Read More »

Watchingcattle : Socially awkward jerk.

Related items

  • The Iceman
    '...since it is summer and your only other option may be Will Smith giving life lessons to his snot nosed progeny while CGI pixels go batshit everywhere, a Shannon performance may be the best thing on at your local megaplex' - WatchingCattle on The Iceman.