Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: 'Take Shelter' & 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

I’ll be honest, I’ve had trouble being inspired lately.  Becoming a real adult will have that affect on you, I suppose.  Hopefully I won’t go this long without writing a post too often in my blogging career.   

There are two movies that I’ve seen recently, however, that did give me a little inspiration, and these two films will probably not play for long and they’ll likely only be at art-house theaters, so I wanted to write this review for them to give you a little shove out the door to catch these before it’s too late. 

These films are actually related thematically in that one focuses on the impending doom and paranoia about the future, while the other deals with the demons of our past coming back to haunt us.   

Take Shelter (2011)

The film that takes a look at the paranoia about the future is Jeff Nichols’ brilliant Take Shelter, which is my current #3 film of the year.  Michael Shannon gives a wonderfully balanced performance as Curtis, a blue-collar everyman with a beautiful family in middle-America who begins to have visions about a coming storm.  These visions, which come to Curtis in his dreams, contain dark clouds that rain an oily substance, birds that fall dead from the sky, and mysterious masked men who try and abduct his daughter, a deaf 5-year old.  The visions are wonderfully directed by Nichols, and had my heart racing at several different moments.  A certain revealing moment in the film’s climax was one of the more intense scenes that I can personally remember seeing in a theater, ever.

Curtis begins to wonder whether these visions are some sort of sign coming to him about the future, or if he has a mental illness.  To hedge his bets either way, he begins to obsessively build out the storm cellar in his back yard, preparing it with all the necessary provisions to last several weeks in case the storm does indeed come; additionally, he begins to study up on mental illness and starts to see a psychologist.

On the surface (without giving too much away here), a major focus of the film is to keep the audience wondering whether the visions are going to come true, or if it is simply a mental illness.  I had an intense sympathy towards Curtis’s plight to keep his family safe from the coming storm, but I was also sympathetic toward his wife (played wonderfully by Jessica Chastain, aka “actress in every movie of 2011”), who wanted to help her husband through his possible illness.  

But I’d like to believe that the river runs deeper than that with this film.  As I tweeted after seeing the movie, I feel that a big part of this movie is about our society right now.  Many Americans right now are scared about the future due to the economy, the loss of jobs, a more divided government than ever, etc., not to mention the downright creepy weather patterns happening across the nation and the world.  A lot of people are wondering whether they will be able to provide for their family if and when the “storm” comes.  The decision by Nichols to make Curtis’s character an average Joe that we can all relate to makes me think that there is a strong current of this sentiment flowing through the veins of this film.  


Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

It’s been a few days since I saw this one, and I like it a little bit more every time I think about it.  In this film, Martha is a 20-something who escapes from a Manson-esque commune and goes to stay with her sister and brother-in-law (Lucy and Ted) who are vacationing in upstate New York.

It tells both the story of her stay at the commune, as well as her stay with her sister, in a very interesting way.  Martha has post-traumatic stress from her time in the commune, so she often is confused about where she is and what she’s doing.  Director Sean Durkin puts you in Martha’s shoes—there are several scenes that begin without the audience knowing where she is.  Like her, you often don’t know which world she is waking up in.  The directing is easily the best aspect of the film.

Like its main character, MMMM keeps the audience at an emotional distance.  You feel bad for what Martha has been through, but her refusal to talk about it or warm up to Lucy and Ted makes it difficult to really care. Lucy tries to mend their relationship, but comes off very cold and judgmental at times. 

What is also very interesting about this film is that even though the experience at the commune is a very horrific one for Martha, and justifiably so for reasons I won’t spoil, it also doesn’t treat the upper-class lifestyle of Lucy and Ted as though it’s any better.  The creepiness of communal living is matched by the creepiness of the traps of being rich and successful: vanity, isolation, and pettiness. 

But the core of the film is about the psychological effects that living in the commune has had on Martha.  Her inability to open up about or deal with her past causes her to become increasingly paranoid about what has happened, and manifests itself through bizarre behavior.  Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha, is a revelation in this film and is as good as advertised.  She perfectly executes the coldness of the character without totally pushing the audience away. 

The high level of acting all-around (not to be forgotten in any review of this film is the excellent supporting turn of John Hawkes as the leader of the commune), as well as the great directing I’ve already discussed are enough to make this film a must-see.  I imagine with a more engaging script it would have been one of the best-reviewed films of the year.