Take Shelter & Snowtown

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

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

Summer 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.

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