Michael Shannon plays a family man plagued by apocalyptic visions in director Jeff Nichols’ latest drama. Jeff Nichols made his debut as a director with the terrific Shotgun Stories back in 2007. That film accomplished a lot with very little, providing a combination of elegant filmmaking and raw emotion that would please Kurosawa. Here, he again tackles the subject of family tragedy in Middle America and achieves results that are just as impressive.
The film opens with Shannon standing his well kept yard as an ominous storm looms on the horizon; liquid with the color and consistency of motor oil falls from the sky. Is this a vision from God? In several scenes, we find out that he doesn’t attend church, and that he doesn’t appear to be a particularly religious man. Or is this the beginning of our protagonist’s battle with schizophrenia? We soon discover that mental illness runs in his family.
With his imposing height and fierce brow, Michael Shannon is ideally suited for the role of either an Old Testament prophet or a schizophrenic madman. Without giving too much away, he kind of gets to play both in this film. Shannon expresses a combination of torment and righteous conviction as only an actor of his caliber can. He’s terrific and gives one of the best performances you will see in any movie made in 2011.
The film industry in America has a shaky history when it comes to depicting mental illness in movies, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise when Shannon’s character, upon having a series of increasingly vivid dreams, obtains books on mental illness and begins meeting with a therapist. Shannon’s sickness and apparent hallucinations are handled with restraint and care. He tries to behave rationally, but he’s ultimately unable to resist the siren call of his horrific dreams. The impression they cause lingers long after the dream has dispelled, and he soon finds himself building an expensive storm shelter in his backyard against his better judgment. He takes to the task like a man divinely inspired. He knows that he may be placing his family in jeopardy, but he feels that this is the only way to save them from catastrophe.
Nichols’ ensures that the stakes are high and the drama that much more captivating. The act of building the shelter could potentially ruin this man’s family as the cost of the project requires him to take out a home improvement loan, and his daughter, rendered deaf by accident, has just qualified for a cochlear implant – a surgery that would change her life.
Jessica Chastain, having enjoyed probably the best year of any actress ever in history of Hollywood, arguably gives the best performance of her young career as Shannon’s anguished wife. Her role is more understated and less showy than Shannon’s tortured protagonist, but is no less powerful. She instills her character with a quiet strength and compassion. Few actors could hold their own against Shannon’s performance here, but Chastain proves herself up to the task.
The great thing about Jeff Nichols is how measured and deliberate he is as a filmmaker. In an era where even quiet, low budget dramas rely on oversaturated colors and shaky handheld cameras, this film has a remarkable stillness. Nichols isn’t interested in showing his audience where he can stick a camera or how long he can maintain a shot, nor does he attempt to bombard the audience with quick-cut editing. He stands back and remains content to capture the performances of the amazing cast he has assembled. The drama and performances are so compelling that anything more on the part of the director might send the film into the realm of camp.
Ultimately, this isn’t a film about faith or fanaticism, but about family. Nichols has crafted a brilliant character study centered on the trials of this flawed, relatable family with care and attention to detail. The unsettling visuals and violent allusions to an impending catastrophe are just an additional layer laid atop the compelling story of a family fractured by the mental illness. This is one the best movies I’ve seen in the last few months. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it.