Top Ten of 2011, #3: Warrior, Gavin O’Connor

Warrior, by Gavin O’Connor, does something very rare for a sports movie; it almost equally develops two main characters, both heading into the ring for the big finale at the climax.  You may ultimately have a favorite between the two, but it makes the final match extremely emotionally-loaded, because no matter who wins, the audience is also set up to emotionally identify with the loser.

In addition to that narrative hook, Warrior has one more unique story element– the fact that both of the final contenders are brothers.  It’s almost too much, really– too clever and too precious.  But O’Connor is a hell of a director, and he’s working with some top notch acting talent.  The two brothers are played by Brit Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson, RocknRolla, This Means War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Aussie Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Thing, and the upcoming The Great Gatsby) and their father by the inestimable Nick Nolte.  All three are capable of incredible emotional depths while keeping things very natural and effortless.  For Nolte’s part, it might be the best work of his career, and as good as Christopher Plummer was in Beginners, Nolte was robbed for not taking home the Oscar this year.  Hardy channels Brando circa The Wild One, all muscular pathos and pain, still trying to break free of a dysfunctional childhood that has left him emotionally crippled and really unable to stand up and be his own man.  Edgerton has a family of his own, and for him it’s about being able to provide for his family and not buckle under the weight of economic hardship.  He’s determined to be the father and have the family that he never had, and he’s willing to fight for it if it kills him.

The backstory has to do with the fact that Nolte was a raging alcoholic and his wife left him, taking the youngest son, Tommy (Hardy) with her.  Brendan (Edgerton) was old enough to be on his own, for the most part, so he chose to stay behind with their father, and before too long left home himself.  But Tommy had to endure homelessness and his mother’s drug addiction until she died, then ended up going into the military.  Tommy holds a lot of resentment towards both his father and his brother for not being there for him, and allowing him to suffer the amount of abuse and neglect he went through.  All of this sets the stage for both contenders to take an emotionally-fueled climb through the MMA ranks in a cage match in Las Vegas for a huge payout.  Brendan’s in it for his family and out of financial necessity; Tommy’s in it to prove something to himself and try to take back control of his destiny and his one-time potential to be a fighter of incredible promise.

The fights here are intense and very realistically-staged, and O’Connor smartly starts wide and with a lot of long shots during the sequential matches.  As the film reaches its conclusion, the coverage keeps creeping in tighter and closer, making the successive fights increasingly intimate and personal.  It’s a technique that really serves the film overall, as well as deeply connecting us to both Tommy and Brendan.  And that’s really where the film succeeds and gains so much of its power.  On the surface it may be a sports film, but underneath that is an incredibly personal and emotionally raw story about family and what we can and should do for each other.  Frank Grillo as a friend of Brendan’s who agrees to be his trainer, and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, both turn in great performances as well.  Morrison is underutilized, but still manages to make her limited screen time one of the best performances of her career.

O’Connor previously directed Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, the hockey movie Miracle, and a theatrically mishandled cop movie called Pride and Glory that starred Colin Farrell and Edward Norton. O’Connor has a real knack for taking solid but often predictable Hollywood scripts and turning them on their ear slightly, transforming them into something truly special.  Warrior is a shining example of that, with O’Connor raising the bar even further and finding new heights.  Much of Warrior is heartbreaking, and there probably hasn’t been a sports movie that emotionally connects as cleanly and powerfully since the original Rocky.

10/10

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Top Ten of 2011, #4: 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike

It’s a fascinating departure for such an irreverent stylist as Takashi Miike to go formalist with this old-school samurai/bushido tale.  13 Assassins has so many similarities to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, right down to Yusuke Iseya’s hunter Koyata evoking Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchio, that it feels like a re-imagining if not an outright remake.  It’s almost as though Miike said to himself, “Only seven samurai, I’ll give them double that!”  Yet, 13 Assassins is actually a remake of the previous 1963 film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku, directed by Eiichi Kudo.

The story is set in the waning days of the samurai, who represent a certain kind of honor, nobility, and loyalty.  But many samurai are homeless and without masters, unable to even find a noble cause to take up.  This degradation of the value system is best exemplified by the rise of the supremely evil Lord Naritsugu, using his station and privilege to do whatever he wants, including committing rape and murder at whim.  After a wronged lord has his family destroyed by Naritsugu and publicy commits seppuku, government official Doi Toshitsura realizes the level of Naritsugu’s depravity, and the fact that he will only become more powerful as time goes on and his shogun family keeps him above the law.  Toshitsura hires Shinzaemon, and older samurai looking for a last mission to be able to end his life serving in honor.

Shinzaemon and his nephew slowly assemble a group of ten more samurai, a ragtag bunch with some older and past their prime, and some younger but untested and without any real experience because of the changing times.  Their journey to intercept Naritsugu takes them across the countryside, and they eventually settle on a remote village to stage an ambush.  Along the way they pick up one more addition, hunter Kiga Koyata, who fights with rocks and slings.  The village is converted into a convoluted deathtrap, and the final fight that takes place there is epic.  The samurai have to fight 200 of Naritsugu’s troop, including his personal samurai Hanbei, an old acquaintance of Shinzaemon’s.  Even though Hanbei may not agree with Naritsugu’s actions, he’s bound by the samurai code to continue fighting for him to his death.  Despite the fact that 13 Assassins features some bloody, gory violence as well as some incredible action and set-pieces, it’s also rich with themes and subtext about living an honorable life by a moral code even when that code makes you a relative dinosaur in the face of a changing world.  And though the film never violates its own time period to overtly make comparisons with our world today, there are certainly parallels one can draw to our contemporary society as its overrun by technology and we run the risk of losing much of a sense of personal responsibility and individual moral codes.

The cinematography of 13 Assassins is incredible.  And the set design, featuring long takes of entire sections of the village being employed in various traps, is amazing as well.  Miike also favors a lot of long takes that really highlight the fight choreography, which is also exquisite.  Really every technical aspect of 13 Assassins is a marvel, and it’s supported by some amazing, subtle, and complex acting from an excellent ensemble led by Koji Yakuso as Shinzaemon.  This is a film that really can stand head and shoulders next to the best of Kurosawa, and it does so in a way that’s very loyal to its historical time period and an appropriate film aesthetic, while taking advantage of contemporary advances in make-up and filming conventions.  Yet those things are always in service of that older aesthetic; 13 Assassins does everything as practically as possible– you’re not going to see many special effects employed tweaking or cheating shots, or visually stylization.  That’s part of what makes the final battle in the village such a masterpiece, and again it pays fitting tribute to Seven Samurai while probably even topping it.  I really can’t say enough good things about 13 Assassins, and if there is any justice in the world, this is destined to become a timeless classic.

10/10

Published in: on March 5, 2012 at 1:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Top Ten of 2011, #5: A Separation, Asghar Farhadi

A Separation is a fantastic achievement, and a film that should be seen by all.  It begins with a marital dispute between Simin and Nader, and slowly reveals their personalities and breaks down the reasons informing their different belief systems, approaches towards life, and priorities about how to live life.  From the opening scene, where Simin and Nader are pleading their sides to a judge, the film validates both characters while illustrating the problems facing any two people trying to live a shared life.  At a base level, we all have fundamental differences with each other.  No one thinks exactly the same way, and the more we love someone, the more these small differences can ending up creating enormous rifts.  For Simin, it’s the fact that she’s living in Iran, stuck in a world with fundamental belief systems and antiquated sexual politics.  She’s learned to live with it, but she wants something more for her daughter Termeh, more possibilities and a better future that can’t be found as a woman in Iran.  Nader, for his part, understands this and may even agree with her.  However, he has an ailing father with Alzheimer’s, and to him, family is the most important thing in the world.  This includes his father as well as his daughter.  Nader can’t uproot his father, and refuses to leave him behind alone in Iran.  But Simin sees this choice as being at the expense of their daughter’s future.  This has resulted in the erosion of Simin and Nader’s marriage, and while Nader maintains his love for his wife and refuses to say that he wants a divorce, he also recognizes that he can’t and shouldn’t keep her in a marriage against her will.

The Iranian judge, however, sees things in much simpler terms.  Or perhaps their judicial system simply isn’t equipped to deal with subtleties.  To him, this is simply a minor problem within a marriage, and he won’t grant Simin a divorce.  As a result, Simin leaves their home to go live with her mother.  She’s hoping that her absence will convince Nader to relent and finally agree to leave the country, or that their daughter Termeh will finally be persuaded to leave with her.  But Termeh sees her father as the moral center of the marriage and sticks by him.  She harbors feelings of resentment towards Simin and refuses to abandon her father and grandfather by leaving Iran with her mother.  All of this sets up the circumstance where Nader has to hire another woman, Razieh, to come in and help with the cooking and the cleaning, and to watch his father while he’s at work and Termeh is at school.  From there the real narrative of the plot kicks in, and a series of events unfolds that threatens the family’s future and their freedoms.

A Separation does two things better than just about any film I’ve ever seen.  The first is the way it deals with its characters and their belief systems and depicts the ways we communicate with each other and the ways we compromise our lives for our families.  The characters’ self-awareness is heightened by the fact that they live in Iran and within very conservative political and religious systems.  For instance, when Nader’s father soils himself while in Razieh’s care, her religion dictates that she’s not allowed to touch him or help him change his pants.  It’s obvious that there’s nothing sexual going on between them, but the letter of her religion is clear.  So she has to place a phone call to try to explain the situation and get special permission to help him.  Or there’s the fact that she’s agreed to help out at Nader’s apartment without telling her husband.  He’s in debt to some creditors, and recently served some jail time for not being able to pay them back.  She needs to help make money, but she’s not allowed to be in Nader’s home without her husband’s permission.  There’s an entire system of social and religious etiquette at work here that refines these characters’ moral choices; at every turn, there’s an enormous amount of thought and specificity that has to go into every decision.  It’s something, really, that any person should be thinking about when making a decision, but it’s something that these characters have to deliberate on.  They aren’t allowed the kind of lazy, thoughtless, reactionary actions that many American commonly practice.  They’re held accountable for every small decision, and every thing they do means something and has consequences they need to take into account.

It’s fascinating to watch a film where the women are wearing shrouds over their heads, and have to dress in full robes in public so that the men can’t see or touch their skin, but to nevertheless feel there are very few differences between that culture and ours.  It’s an enormous compliment to director Asghar Farhadi that he’s able to cut through such superficial societal differences right to the universal truths.  These people are remarkably similar to us, similarly complex, and dealing with decisions in the same way that you and I would.  They may be living within a sometimes-antiquated system, but the characters themselves are incredibly modern in their thinking.  It’s the strength of this remarkable cross-cultural bridge that’s the other phenomenal attribute of A Separation.

But A Separation isn’t simply the drama of a failing marriage and the choices that people make.  That may be where it begins, but it shares elements with the films of Hitchcock or the novels of Dostoyevsky.  A Separation may be examining morality and how moral choices are either upheld or eroded when a situation dictates some other set of needs, and how those situations can result from a chain of events originating with simple happenstance, but Farhadi builds these elements with masterful narrative structuring that evokes the beats and unfolding plots of mysteries and thrillers.  He’s created a film universal in what it has to say about people, our relationships with each other, and how we try to find common ground, but he’s done it in a form that is eminently entertaining and keeps you on the edge of your seat biting your nails.  And it’s supported by acting that’s top-notch across the board.  Nothing is ever forced or unnatural in the slightest, yet all of the performances are emotionally full and extremely complex.

The only criticism I can possibly level at A Separation is how the ending cops out a bit, instead trying to leave the audience with more to chew on.  A Separation has plenty for the audience to chew on already.  Perhaps it’s meant to underline the fact that no decision is ever all good, and every decision and choice made results in something negative along with the positive.  Part of being an adult is learning to accept this, and being willing to shoulder the limitations that come tied to our freedoms.  And part of being a parent is realizing that we can’t always protect our children; that even when we try to encourage them to make their own choices, that in itself has consequences and places the enormous burden of adulthood on them.  And yet, eventually everyone has to enter into this part of the world; everyone has to learn compromise, accept their failings along with their victories, and live with the consequences of their actions– especially when those consequences are not always directly their fault.  Humans are ultimately fallible, no matter how hard we may try not to be, and we simply don’t always have the control over our lives or the world around us that we would often like to have.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #6: The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar

The Skin I Live In is in many ways a return to the genre films Almodovar made earlier in his career, but with the infusion of maturity, confidence, and narrative skill amassed over his later body of work.  It’s also a return to his working with Antonio Banderas, a frequent early collaborator.  It’s fascinating that both of them have come full circle, and after a successful run in Hollywood, Banderas is no longer quite the hot property he was 15 years ago.  But again, the wisdom and maturity that comes from that journey adds so much color to his performance here, and Skin finds Banderas at the top of his craft, exploring dark, emotional corridors with unwavering focus and concentration.  This is yet another performance that far outshines a lot of what was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, and one that really should have received more attention.

The plot of Skin is fairly complex, and it’s structured in such a way as to provide certain elements of surprise and really delve into various pulpy genre conventions.  I don’t want to ruin too much, so I’m going to be very particular in how much I explain.  But all of Almodovar’s favorite themes, from loopy, insane genre-bending, to permutations of noir and pulp, to sexual politics, to his deep exploration of emotionally complex women all converge quite nicely here.  The film poster alone bears similarities to that of the French film Eyes Without a Face, and Almodovar is certainly riffing on the mad scientist genre.  As the film opens, we learn that Elena Anaya’s Vera Cruz is a patient of Banderas’ Robert Ledgard.  She wears strange body suits to protect her skin and odd face masks, and Ledgard is busy working on some experimental skin grafts for her.  She also seems suicidal, and we’re not sure what events figure in her past; perhaps she’s the survivor of some strange fire.  As a result, she’s locked in a room in Ledgard’s house, and her meals are prepared for her and sent up to her by way of an elevator in the wall and a dumb waiter within.

Then Skin bounces around in time, and we get some backstory about Ledgard and an earlier life with a beloved daughter.  He’s a tragic character, passionate and haunted, and over the course of the story his strange depths are slowly revealed and explored.  Through it all, Almodovar balances some disparate changes in tone, seamlessly weaving together his eccentric range of taste in one film.  There are parts of Skin that feature the kind of very broad, almost over-the-top parody from early in his career, while other parts showcase a more layered, studied investigation of dark character depths.  The fact that Almodovar can find the odd balance to make all of this work together is in many ways a career high.  And the success with which everything comes together, both in terms of the plotting and the eclectic and varied themes, will provide any Almodovar lover with some deep satisfaction.

Both Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s maid, a role that is more complex than it originally appears on the surface, and Anaya as the subject of Ledgard’s painstaking work, turn in accomplished and complex work.  Anaya reminds one of Penelope Cruz, who has worked with Almodovar on many films and several of his most recent ones, and certainly fits a particular brand of Almodovar ingenue.  Skin is extremely rich both in terms of its genre stylings and the performances, but to reveal any more would be to do the film a disservice.  While it’s unfair to characterize anything Almodovar does as straight drama, particularly taking into account his gender politics, the level of twisted genre exploration happening in Skin is exciting to watch.  It’s also great fun seeing a filmmaker so accomplished with such a strong voice take such a gleeful headlong sprint into some of the truly bizarre places Almodovar ventures here.  Skin is likely the most inventive, playful, and cheekily insane film to hit theatres this past year.  It’s visually stylish and gorgeous-looking, creepy and fascinating, and manages to land several different types of emotional sucker-punches.  Kudos to Almodovar for this strange and bizarre creation, and hats off to Banderas for taking a risk here that results in perhaps the best work of his career.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #7: Shame, Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his debut Hunger, like Nichols’ Take Shelter, is another re-teaming of an actor/director pair that really should have resulted in an Oscar nomination this past year.  Michael Fassbender turns in a very emotionally raw & naked performance of a sexual compulsive and sex addict living in New York City.

This is the kind of material that could easily slide into exploitation, but McQueen handles everything with such a deft touch, and Fassbender implicitly trusts his director and allows himself to be very vulnerable and emotionally transparent throughout.  We seem to be in an era where American stars are so busy courting huge Hollywood success, and where Hollywood is transfixed with trying to make these boyish man-children into leading men.  Consequently, time and time again the actors who demonstrate a true masculinity and maturity, as well as both an honesty and complexity in their work are coming from Ireland, Britain, and Australia.  Fassbender gave a great performance in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, a big Hollywood film so well-executed that it does pain me a bit that I’m not able to include it in this list.  But here he’s plumbing even darker depths.

Shame didn’t receive a very wide release because of its inability to escape the dreaded NC-17.  And Shame certainly has its share of nudity, including some dangling man parts.  But a lot of this is front-loaded.  The film opens, shows you exactly the things that some audiences may be nervous about seeing, sets the tone, and then moves on.  Once that world has been established, once that level of sexuality is omni-present, McQueen knows he doesn’t need to visually dwell there.  Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is such a sexual compulsive, that he can barely go minutes without pursuing some kind of sexual release.  Women he picks up on the street, co-workers, magazines, internet porn, prostitutes– life for Brandon is a non-stop sexual buffet, and there’s nothing he won’t put on his plate.  At one point he even has sex with a man in a sex shop.  But there’s never really any question if Brandon is gay.  It’s simply part of his unending quest for physical release, and a constant need to raise the stakes by pushing his own boundaries farther and farther.

Somehow, Brandon is just barely able to hold down a job.  Part of that probably has to do with the fact that his boss, David Fisher, played by James Badge Dale, has a mess of a home life and sort of hero-worships Brandon.  David is the kind of frat boy who one day grew up and got married and had kids, but doesn’t seem to genuinely emotionally connect with his family.  He’s living an illusion and playing an artificial role of family man, but he’s not above secretly having affairs on the side, or having sex with Brandon’s own sister when she comes to town.  And David is not smooth, not in the least.  Despite the fact that he’s obviously had sexual relations with women, even married one of them, he constantly acts like an idiotic teenager trying to get laid.  As annoying as the character is, including him is a smart move on McQueen’s part because it invites a lot of comparisons with Brandon.  Next to David, Brandon is a very smooth operator.  He’s also much more intelligent.  And for all of his compulsiveness, he’s very self-aware.  This isn’t a teenager’s game to Brandon; it’s something that drives him and haunts him, and his shame throughout is palpable and complex.

The arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that equals Fassbender’s, traps Brandon by shining a light on just how far gone he is.  Brandon avoids talking to her as much as possible, but when she literally shows up on his doorstep, there’s nowhere left to run.  It’s quite obvious that both of these characters have suffered some pretty terrible abuse, but McQueen never reveals the full details.  We don’t know if they were molested by their parents, if they were forced to participate in incest with each other, or if the abuse was less overt but just as psychologically damaging.  Either way, sister and brother are both extremely hyper-sexual characters, deeply scarred and in great pain with an intense need for love.  Yet, this need for love has been subverted into the sexual.  And they both pursue it in their own ways, but neither in a way that is healthy or could actually lead them to fulfillment.

Brandon in particular seems more sexually aroused the more he doesn’t know the people he’s with.  Once an emotional connection is made, as is the case when he tries to date a co-worker, his sexual equipment stops working.  It’s a case of that emotional connection representing too great an emotional risk, triggering a system shutdown.  Consequently, Brandon is forever pursuing love and meaning through empty sexual relations that can never amount to anything.  And the empty void of his existence just keeps deepening, widened by shame, and increasing the fevered pitch of his sexual mania.

Brandon tries his best to hide from himself and to keep pushing away a problem that seems to have no solution.  In spite of how debased a character he is, he’s also intelligent, self-aware, and not without a sense of humor.  A dinner date with a co-worker is intensely uncomfortable, but a fascinating look into his psyche.  He tries to be open and honest about his beliefs, while at the same time also knowing how unattractive it makes him.  When the conversation takes a certain turn and he realizes how far gone he must appear, he tries to bring it back with self-effacing humor.  But at a core level, Brandon is simply broken; he lacks trust on such a basic level, that he’s unable to give love to another person without the vulnerability destroying him, and he’s unable to receive it.  His existence has become a non-stop feeding of sexual addiction, but by leading an isolated, solitary existence with no real friends and no family, he’s able to shut down a large part of himself and exist only for the addiction itself.  When Sissy lands in his apartment on his couch, all of that changes.  Not only does he have to deal with repressed feelings that obviously make him uncomfortable, but he has to be more honest with himself about the extent of his mania and the way his life only exists to feed it.

Shame is an incredibly brave film with two incredibly brave and honest central performances.  And while it’s sexually graphic at times, it plays those cards pointedly for their full effect when it needs to, so that most of the film can be spent examining an overtly sexual world through tone and characterization.  It also doesn’t attempt to provide easy answers or to solve its characters lives with lazy melodrama, but recognizes that real change is a process.  Sometimes that process requires a life-changing event for it to be initiated, but continuing to carry through with it is a constant daily struggle, and some days are more successful than others.  While that makes Shame a very honest film in its approach, it also makes it slightly unfulfilling.  It’s bravura filmmaking to be sure, but it’s bravura filmmaking with an ultimately somewhat modest aim.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #8: Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols follows up his self-assured feature debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, with another collaboration with actor Michael Shannon.  If there were any justice in the world, Shannon would have been nominated for an Oscar this past season for his work here.  Was there really any reason Brad Pitt needed a nomination for Moneyball, in which his entire performance consisted of mumbling and chewing tobacco?

Take Shelter is a complex and challenging film that poses question about faith, spirituality, and the drive to provide for one’s family.  In lesser hands this could veer into the territory of some of those awful Christian-themed films, but Nichols isn’t concerned with pushing a message on the audience.  Instead he’s much more interested in asking questions.  Shannon’s Curtis is a blue-collar family man doing his best to be a good husband to his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah.  But he starts having dreams where his family is threatened or hurt, and when he wakes up from them, he’s physically depleted and the pain from them lasts for days.  As time goes on, the dreams become more intense, even apocalyptic, and Curtis begins experiencing waking hallucinations as well as penetrating migraine headaches.  Every part of his being is telling him to listen to his inner voices, and that this is all happening for a reason.  There are Biblical allusions throughout, and Curtis keeps wondering if he’s been given divine information about some coming event like Noah or Moses, or if it’s all in his head.  For as much as he wants to be able to trust himself, he fears he may simply be losing his mind.  This is further complicated by the fact that his mother Sarah, played by an excellent Kathy Baker, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was Curtis’ age and now lives in an assisted living facility.  Curtis knows he may be surrendering to the same disease; he seeks medical help but it’s not conclusive, and all the while he tries to hide his declining condition from his family to spare them from the same trauma he went through when his mother was committed.

There’s a beautiful and touching character arc here with Curtis and how he was abandoned, though not intentionally, growing up.  As a result, he’s extremely emotionally vulnerable and has a great fear of abandonment.  That same fear, flipped in on itself, has created this intense drive in him to never abandon his family and to protect them through anything.  Yet, in trying to be a strong male provider for his family, he covers his own vulnerabilities and insecurities, and emotionally isolates himself.  The possible onset of schizophrenia not only represents the same disease that took his mother returning for him, but also threatens to emotionally wreck his family in the same way his world was wrecked long ago.

Jessica Chastain plays his wife Samantha, and as always she finds incredible emotional nuance and range with something a lesser actress would have simply walked through.  Samantha has a very narrow focus on a simple and happy home life.  When Curtis begins to unravel, at first it’s something that she doesn’t really want to acknowledge.  But as he gets worse, and his behavior becomes more erratic and he does things like building a bomb shelter in the back yard, her faith is tested as well– her ability to love the man and not the illusion, and her ability to stick by him wherever his journey may lead.

The bomb shelter in the backyard is one of many Biblical metaphors.  Just as Noah built his boat after hearing messages from God, so Curtis has the bomb shelter.  And the question is posited– is this a world where faith even exists any more?  Is this a world where someone can listen if God were to give them a warning, or have we become so focused on explaining away everything through science that we’re now deaf to our own instincts and inner voices?  Or was Joan of Arc simply schizophrenic, and is that all it has ever been when people believe they see signs or hear voices?  We all live our lives ultimately having to depend on something to make decisions– a sense of right or wrong, our own instincts, or listening to our hearts.  But what does this mean?  And what do we do when those instincts become razor sharp, banging down our internal doors– yet without a reflection in the world around us?  How much patience do we have, and how long can we wait without proof?  Do we inevitably concede to trust those voices as long as it takes, or in the absence of tangible support, do we deny the strongest instincts that we have?

These are the questions Take Shelter asks of Curtis, and by proxy, asks us to consider as well.  We’ve reached a place in time with our current technology where it’s given us so many alternatives to our own inner voices, and so many reasons to distrust them or abandon them altogether.  Curtis is a simple man.  He’s certainly not intellectual, but he’s not stupid, either.  He has a wisdom within his own narrow life experience, but Take Shelter asks him to question everything about it.  And the film Take Shelter itself is extremely intelligent.  It never simplifies, never preaches.  And it posits its questions in a way that should really connect with contemporary audiences.  You couldn’t ask for two better lead actors than Shannon and Chastain, and they’re supported by excellent, often understated work from Baker, Shea Whigam as Curtis’ best friend, Ray MacKinnon as his brother, and Lisa Gay Hamilton as a counselor.  This is a film that was hugely overlooked this year by much of America, and while it’s not some big Hollywood blockbuster with lots of explosions, it is structured somewhat like a dramatic thriller and may be able to connect with audiences who were never even made aware that it exists.  Take Shelter often moves slowly, but it also does so purposefully, offering plenty of food for thought.  And it features an emotionally compelling climax, and a final scene that should give audiences something to think about and consider for some time afterwards.

9/10

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