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Michael Shannon Shines in 'Take Shelter'

Remember when September was a dumping ground for mediocre movies that studios needed to clean out before rolling out the Oscar contenders? Well, it's the last week of the month and several terrific films are opening today. Not only that, but we still have some great movies like "Moneyball" and "Warrior" in theaters. Really, "Warrior" deserves to be doing better--if you haven't seen it yet, get out there and check out one of the best films of the year. Then hop on over to one of the other great films opening this weekend--"50/50" would be at the top of my list, but if you want some gory fun, you can't go wrong with "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil." Both films are Back Stage Critic's Picks.

Also opening this weekend, and one I truly hope doesn't get lost in the Oscar shuffle, is "Take Shelter," a beautiful and terrifying parable from writer-director Jeff Nichols featuring a ferocious performance from Michael Shannon. I've been a fan of Shannon's ever since his riveting turn in the play "Bug" as a paranoid Gulf War veteran, a role he reprised for the 2006 film version. He then wowed audiences as a mentally unstable man in "Revolutionary Road," which earned him an Oscar nod. Well, nobody does paranoia and mental instability better than Shannon, who is utterly amazing in "Take Shelter" as Curtis, a husband and father who begins to experience visions and dreams of an oncoming apocalyptic event. He then sets out to build a bomb shelter in his year, much to the confusion of his loving wife, portrayed by the always wonderful Jessica Chastain. 

Shannon is one of my favorite actors to talk to; there's something about his appearance (he looks about 7 feet tall and has wide, expressive eyes) mixed with that unique vocal cadence (a little Christopher Walken-ish) that, for some reason, endlessly amuses me. He's also exceptionally intelligent and knows more about the craft of acting than most people could hope to forget. I had the pleasure of moderating a Q&A with Shannon and Shea Whigham, who plays Curtis' best friend, last Saturday night, where a sold-out crowd could not stop praising the actor.

Shannon previously starred in Nichols' first film, "Shotgun Stories," and the filmmaker has made a vow to cast the actor in every one of his films. Shannon read the script for "Take Shelter" early on and let Nichols know he loved it. Still, it wasn't a forgone conclusion he would be the lead. Joked Shannon, "I think he knew he wanted to have a bigger budget because 'Shotgun Stories' had about $5 and he wanted more. He thought he might be able to get $10 or $20." But ultimately, the role was offered to Shannon. "When he did call, it was out of the blue and short notice. He said, 'I’ve got the financing, it’s going to happen in a couple months, do you want to do it?'"

There are several things I really love about "Take Shelter." One is that Chastain's character isn't a shrew, nagging wife like you might expect to find in a film like this. She tries her best to support her husband, even when his behavior is difficult to justify.  Another facet of the film is the way it makes us root for Curtis, who is either eerily prescient, or mentally ill. In a twisted way, we want him to be right about his visions, even if it means a disaster is imminent. When I asked Shannon for his thoughts on whether, giving the choice, he would prefer for Curtis to be right or insane, he responded:

"I think its inevitable that there’s going to be massive destruction. It’s not necessarily going to be tomorrow or a month from now, but it’s just a fact that this is not going to go on forever. And I think it’s something most people think about at some point or another. To me, the visions and what Curtis is experiencing...I find it very poetic. It’s not so much a literal examination of deterioration or mental illness. Its more like Jeff wrote a poem about something that is happening and it’s this movie. And it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day if he’s right or not, that’s not the point. The point is: how do you live in this world that is so fragile, how do you cope with that?"

"Take Shelter" opens in limited release today; check out their website for more info and to find where you can see it--it's worth seeking out.

--Jenelle Riley

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