One of the reasons people return again and again to Kubricks The Shining is that at its centre it is less about fear of the supernatural than it is about fear of madness: fear of going mad, and fear of people who have lost their sanity. Jack Torrance unnerves us because, like Norman Bates, we can find some correlation between his behaviour and our own; we do not share his murderous impulses, but we may wonder if we could end up in the same position, under the right circumstances. Madness is what scares us because it seems like something to which any of us could fall prey. Here is a movie that crosses this notion with biblical allegory and is, depending on how you take it, either about someones mind unravelling or about a man prophesising the end of days. The movie, in a sense, takes the apocalypse seriously, because its a subjective film. Whether the visions hes having are real or not, his world is unravelling. His name is Curtis and he is played by Michael Shannon, who is rapidly becoming one of the best character actors going. With his burning, intense eyes and tight, contemplative mouth he can convince us, more than most, of someone whose grip on reality is at least shaky, but in this film compared, say, to his turn in Werner Herzogs My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? its a reined-in performance. Curtis lives fairly simply with his wife and daughter. His daughter is deaf, and much of the money he makes as a labourer on a construction site goes to paying her medical bills. He starts having worrying visions. Tornados fill the sky, birds fall like hail and zombie-like people press against his windows. These sequences are imaginative and powerful they are also, sadly, all in the trailer, which I urge you to avoid. Inevitably, the movie isnt much like the trailer; its much more patient and contemplative. Shannon plays Curtis as a reasonable, hardworking introvert. He suggests great torment and confusion behind his stoic exterior. Knowing his mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, he and his wife look into getting him some kind of help, but they may not even be able to afford it. It doesnt help that Curtis has spent time and money on a tornado shelter. His wife, Samantha, is frightened but sympathetic; she wants him to get help. However he isnt even entirely sure if his sanity is at stake or not; he thinks the signs may be real. At a local meeting he can no longer contain his anger at the way people are talking about him and bursts with fury, and his explosion of anger from nowhere at that point is more powerful than any of the actual explosions you will see in this years blockbusters. He sounds like a fundamentalist street-corner prophet in this scene but you dont feel like youre being shovelled a message; it feels like a natural progression. Despite the religious themes and imagery, religion itself is kept at arms distance. The writer-director is Jeff Nichols, whose only other movie, Shotgun Stories, also starred Shannon. His talent is obvious: this is a superbly made film, building slowly and inexorably towards its climax. Some consider the end a cop-out, but I believe they are wrong: the final scene is just as ambiguous as everything that has gone before. Curtiss dreams alert him that something is wrong, that something bad is happening, and that is the tone of the movie. He is of course right: whether the visions are real or not, his world is falling to pieces, externally or internally. I have deliberately left the best till last. Shannons performance here is so impressive that it will get most of the attention, which is fair enough; he is able to suggest so much going on beneath that stoic exterior. But if Shannon has a face for cinema, it is more than matched by Jessica Chastains. She plays Samantha, Curtiss wife. If you dont know her name, you will soon. Shes in a half-dozen movies this year; of the three Ive seen, this is the best. Her role is possibly trickier than Shannons, because she is the stable one, left to look after the daughter and trying to help her husband. Its a role that could be so easily overplayed, but theres none of that here. You cant detect any technique from Chastain at all; she just seems to respond honestly to what Curtis says. Some of those reaction shots made me choke up, and she wasnt even doing anything except listening and allowing notes of disappointment and empathy to flit across her eyes. With her pale skin, fiery red hair, dimpled chin and wide, infectious smile she has a beauty that is unique, and it is matched by her truthful, understated and subtly devastating performance. What more could you possibly want from an actor? Take Shelter is out now in the US, and will be released in the UK on 25 November.
I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.