Cannes (Critics' Week) – Look out! A storm is brewin'! The newly-commissioned General Zod, Michael Shannon, faces up to the end of the world in an American indie which has already impressed at Sundance. Paul Martin battens down the hatches and settles in for the night.
If there's one theme coming through loud and clear from across the competitions at this year's Cannes, from the punkoid lovers shadowed by tragedy in War is Declared, to the horror movie satire of Hard Labor, and now Take Shelter, then it is that the moneyed classes, Mother Earth's children of privilege, are coming under sustained fire.
Certainly, in many ways, this only reflects the wider world, with those who have effectively dictated the path and pace of global progress since... well, since just about as long as even the greyest, orneriest old Catweazle of a grandpa can recall, increasingly beginning to feel the foundations of their power slowly but turn surely turn to sand beneath their feet. And it is a feeling they do not like, they finding nothing to celebrate in the fact that their ability to shape their own fate seems to be inexorably slipping away from them (and when I say 'them', I include myself in that bracket, as well as just about anyone else who isn't forced to pan-handle for pennies in the hope of staving off starvation till at least the day after tomorrow).
The idea that there exist inequalities in the world that require addressing has been one that intellectually-fashionable folk have been paying lip service to for quite some time. I can recall sitting in a pub in South Wales on 11 September 2001 and overhearing a drinker at an adjacent table remarking that an event of the terrible magnitude of the one playing out on the TV screen that all our eyes were glued to had been coming for a long time. How peerlessly smug to sit hunched over your half-drunk pint, offering such pearls of wisdom as you watch your fellow man tumble hundreds of feet to certain doom, in the entirely understandable desire to cling to life for that split-second longer.
You see, that's the thing about all this chatter suggesting that 'we' are due for some substantial suffering – for a long period, that's all it ever was, just chatter. And as the Brian Jonestown Massacre quite correctly noted, talk minus action equals shit. Now though, like it or not, the chat is finally hardening into fact. As a series of 21st century episodes have rocked faith in western power structures – variable degrees of military impotence in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, terrorist atrocities bringing death to the streets of our greatest cities, the financial masters of the universe being exposed as trouserless blow-hards uselessly tinkering like the Wizard behind the curtain – so the sense that a change is gonna come has mutated into a creeping existential dread, an unending nightmare bereft of light and hope. Be careful what you wish for an' all that.
It is hard not to receive Take Shelter as an expressionistic document of that dread, what with its study of the deterioration of construction worker Curtis LaForche (the lugubrious Michael Shannon), a husband and father who inhabits that fragile land between middle and working classes. Tormented by cataclysmic visions that haunt his sleep, Curtis dreams of sky-blotting twisters which spew urinary streams of brown rain, of his dog attacking him, even of his wife, Samantha wielding a knife with menace (Samantha, incidentally, is played by Jessica Chastain, who would be as plausible as Shannon's daughter as she is as his wife. Maybe more so).
What youthful writer-director Jeff Nichols seems to be communicating not just through Curtis's dire premonitions, but also the use of languorous takes and off-centre shots of the American heartland, is a crisis of the avowed dream of that nation. Working hard and treasuring his loved ones is not going to be enough for Curtis to make it. He has no belief that he can keep his job, no faith that he can protect his deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). His sole unshakable conviction is that the world is too cruel and immense and powerful for him not to be crushed by it.
Well, that's what Take Shelter said to me. Nichols himself, speaking after the screening I attended, seemed to see it rather differently. He presented his movie as a portrait of a marriage in crisis, as opposed to something societally broader. A member of the audience openly disputed this reading (as I was also doing silently, somewhere in the cheap seats at the back), although Nichols took this dissent very much in his stride, coming across as one of those Americans who're so stunningly polite and good-natured that if you punch them in the face they apologise for getting blood on your knuckles.
However, if we accept the director's interpretation of his own work, Take Shelter loses power with the same alarming rapidity as Samson after an ill-advised trip to the barber's. Why is Curtis so wracked with mental trauma when his marriage actually appears quite idyllic – at least before he starts behaving like a lip-flicking looney? And whatever meaning we elect to assign to his visions, the film is hampered by a stony-faced sincerity (the antithesis of the blackly comic delirium of Hard Labor), with Curtis positioned as a tragic figure, a man betrayed by life, when in truth we (meaning me, you, him, Nichols, and just about everyone else) have to acknowledge ourselves as at least partly culpable for our millennial woes.
Rating on a scale of 5 shelter helpers: 3
Release date: UK = TBC; US = 7 October 2011
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay by: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Wigham, Tova Stewart
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 116 minutes