Movie Reviews - 2011 postsMonday December 19, 2011
Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
It would be nice if kids or teenagers left the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movies wanting to be smarter. These things are roller coaster rides, like any successful Hollywood action franchise, but at least the guy at the head of the roller coaster isn’t a pun-swilling gigantus, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an ordinary schmoe yapping out of the corner of his mouth, like Bruce Willis. At least he’s a supersmart guy. So maybe it’ll encourage a few kids out there to be smart or get smart. One can hope.
On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) have, under Ritchie’s direction, become so glib in their smartness, in their ‘science’ of deductive reasoning, that, halfway through their latest adventure, the horribly subtitled “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” they began to remind me of the satiric 1960s-era Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) solving the Riddler’s riddles.
Here’s Batman and Robin from 1966. What has yellow skin and writes? A ball-point banana! What people are always in a hurry? Rushing? Russians! “I’ve got it!” Robin says, snapping his fingers. “Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!” “Right, Robin,” Batman replies with gravitas. “The only possible meaning.”
For Holmes and Watson, it’s this dirt on this page, and that wine stain on that page, not to mention such-and-such an inky residue, leading them, of course, to that wine cellar near the printing press in Paris! The only possible meaning.
The movie, while it mostly ignores the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, is bookended by homages. We see Dr. Watson actually writing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, which Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson did, and in 1891, which is the year Conan Doyle’s first story, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in The Strand Magazine. And we get Reichenbach Falls in the end.
But it begins with terrorism. Things are blowing up and the newspapers of the day are blaming the right or left, the nationalists or anarchists, depending; but, Watson writes, “my friend Sherlock Holmes had a different theory entirely.” Cut to: a package changing hands in the dirty streets of London. The last hands belong to Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), functionary to Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris of “Mad Men”) and love interest to Sherlock Holmes, who, disguised as a Chinese opium addict, suddenly appears at her side, warning her of unsavory men following her. Ah, but he’s mistaken. They’re guarding her, against him, and she leaves him in their care. Which leads to our first example of 19th-century fisticuffs, or, more precisely, slow-mo and super-deductive 21st-century martial arts madness.
Are we tired yet of Holmes imagining the fight before the fight even though he has no idea whom he’s fighting? Are we tired yet of explosions, of bullets ripping through trains and trees but always missing our lead characters? Are we tired yet of all the anachronisms, of machine-gun pistols and faultless plastic surgery and the general 21st-century superquick pace of movies—zipping from London to Paris to Germany to Switzerland and back to London again? Or is it just me?
The key to the movie is how to keep Dr. Watson involved. He’s about to get married, remember, and does, to Mary (Kelly Reilly), so he should be out of the picture. But Holmes bolts after the ceremony to confront Prof. Moriarty, who has already killed Irene Adler with a rare form of tuberculosis, and who then threatens the newlyweds. “When two objects collide,” Moriarty tells Holmes, “there’s always damage of a collateral nature ... I’ll be sure to send my regards to the happy couple.”
Soon after Watson and Mary board a honeymoon train to Brighton, assassins arrive, bullets fly, and Holmes, watching over the newlyweds, protects Mary, and the movie franchise, by pushing her from the train and into a river, where brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) awaits in a rowboat to take her to safety. Phew. Thank God she’s gone. We can continue.
To Paris, and gypsies (including Noomi Rapace of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), and a bombing at the Hotel d’Triomph; then to Germany and a munitions factory and a nasty bit of torture; then to Switzerland and another assassination attempt and the final tumble at Reichenbach Falls.
Moriarty’s plan? Corner the market on munitions and start a war. Yawn. Holmes prevents the immediate war but Moriarty, and we in the audience, and most likely Holmes, know it’s a stopgap. “War on an industrial scale is inevitable,” Moriarty tells Holmes. “All I have to do is wait.” Which is when Holmes reveals he’s gotten hold of Moriarty’s booklet of holdings, and, with brother Mycroft, Mary and the underutilized Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), depleted it. Cue anger flaring in Moriarty’s eyes. Cue both men imagining the fight before it happens. Cue Holmes seeing his demise. Cue the tumble into the waterfall.
Holmes’ fans know he survives. Back in 1891, Conan Doyle wanted to kill off his famed character, of whom he was tired, but there was such a yap of protest that he brought him back again, with convenient explanations for his survival. So my only question, as I watched a saddened Dr. Watson finish his story of the demise of Sherlock Holmes, typing in THE END, was whether the filmmakers would give hints that Holmes was alive or save it for the second sequel. Neither. They showed us Holmes alive, mischievously adding a question mark to Watson’s manuscript: THE END? Which, I admit, I thought was a nice touch.
But overall the script by the Mulroneys, Michele and Kieran, isn’t as clever as the first, which was written by a gang of four. The characters are now broader, the explosions bigger, the roller coaster ride blurrier. I was bored. Trees getting blown up don’t excite me. Good dialogue excites me.
You know which Holmes excites me? The one from the new BBC series, “Sherlock,” starring—and this has got to be the greatest British name that Charles Dickens didn’t invent—Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s set in modern times. He texts, he’s got a website, and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman, who played Tim on “The Office”) is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. They bring Holmes to the 21st century. The Guy Ritchie films keep Holmes in the 19th century but lavish him with the flotsam and impatience and violence and general stupidity of ours. They’re about a sequel away from the ball-point banana.
You know how Holmes imagines the fight before the fight? I wish the filmmakers, Guy Ritchie, et al, would imagine the next sequel before the next sequel, see the shoddy result, and do the filmmaking equivalent of tumbling into Reichenbach Falls. The End. No question mark.
Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
That’s the word that comes to mind when watching Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The morality is murky, the mise en scene is murky, the code-language is murky. The film is a corrective for anyone who misses the Cold War.
But is the plot too murky? Or truncated? The movie is based upon the 432-page Cold War novel by John le Carré, which was made into a seven-part, five-and-a-half-hour BBC miniseries starring Alex Guinness in 1979. Now it’s down to two hours. In that time, amid much silence, code language, and the cold vacuity of gray-brown institutional buildings, we meet a dozen or more characters, five of whom could be traitors, all of whom are given further codenames, the titular codenames, while being investigated by George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the career spy who is pulled from a forced retirement, and who may be a suspect himself. By the time we get a handle of who’s who and what’s what, it’s time for the big reveal, and we still barely know “tailor” and “soldier,” which eliminates half our suspects. So who could it be? Oh, right. Him. There you go.
Of course the big reveal, for some, is about as much a reveal as who killed Hamlet’s father. The story is so well-known, particularly in Great Britain, that at this point it’s more about form than content: “How is the story told?” rather than “What happens?” And in this, Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) triumphs. In “Three Days of the Condor,” a 1970s-era CIA director is asked if he misses the kind of action he saw in the intelligence field during World War II. “I miss that kind of clarity,” he responds. “Tinker Tailor” is all about that lack of clarity. It’s about murkiness. Le Carré has already called it the best adaptation of his work.
It begins in suspicion and in the negative. “You weren’t followed?” Control (John Hurt) asks Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a former head of the Scalphunters division. “I want you to go to Budapest,” he tells him. “This is not above board,” he tells him.
Apparently a Hungarian general wants to come over but in Budapest things go wrong and Prideaux winds up dead. It’s such a fiasco that Control, Chief of the Circus, which is the nickname of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is more commonly known as MI6, is dismissed, along with his deputy, Smiley. This is handled so subtly that I missed it. Wait a minute, what? “A man should know when to leave the party,” Control says. “Smiley is leaving with me,” Control says. And that’s that. These are men who reveal little, after all, Smiley most of all, so I missed the power struggle in those 14 words. Control is soon dead while Smiley swims with elderly men, head gliding above the water, at Hampstead Pond. At this point, we’ve been given three characters: two are now dead and one is retired. Alfredson giveth and taketh. He leaves us nothing to hold onto. The proper feeling for the rest of the story.
Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not dead, Prideaux, whom we see teaching French in some country school, recruiting a sad, fat kid to be his lookout. Is this a flashback? What is this?
Besides, one of the characters turns out to be not retired. When Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a Scalphunter apparently gone rogue, shows up at the home of Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the permanent undersecretary, with the same news that Control told Prideaux at the open— there’s a mole at the top of the Circus—Smiley is recalled to investigate. He reacts to this news quietly, without emotion, but his words pack a punch. “I’m retired, Oliver,” he tells Lacon laconically. “You fired me.”
But he accepts the job and chooses two men, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack)—impeccable, one assumes—and off they go, slowly and steadily.
Control’s suspicions centered on five men, whom he gave code names from a British children’s rhyme: Tinker, Tailor/ Soldier, Sailor/ Rich Man, Poor Man/ Beggar Man, Thief. (In the U.S., we borrowed the second stanza.) Thus:
- Tinker: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)
- Tailor: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)
- Soldier: Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds)
- Poor Man: Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)
- Beggar Man: Smiley
Alleline, with access to a high-ranking Soviet source, codenamed “Witchcraft,” has now ascended to the top of the Circus. Haydon, best friend to Prideaux, is a ladies man always sniffing after the new secretaries. (He even seduced Smiley’s wife, news that comes to us in pieces.) Bland is blunt, Esterhase a toady. It’s one of them. Or none of them. Since Smiley was not above Control’s suspicion, he’s not really above ours, either.
Other bits come into play. George visits Connie Sachs, a retired Circus researcher, dismissed because of her suspicions of a Soviet defector, Polyakov, whom she sees, in old footage, being saluted during a May Day parade. If he was a soldier, she asks, why hide it from us? But when she brought her suspicions to Alleline, she was told, as Control was told, that she was losing her grip on reality.
After interrogating Prideaux (he hadn’t been killed: merely shot and tortured for months), Peter and Smiley share a bottle of Scotch in a hotel room, talking about Karla, their counterpart on the Soviet side. It's a great scene. Smiley owns up that he once met him, in ’55 in Dehli, after Karla had been tortured by the CIA. “No fingernails,” Smiley says matter-of-factly, holding up his right hand. The assumption was Karla would be killed when he returned to Moscow, so Smiley tries to convince him to stay in the west, and talks about all we have here; then he talks about Karla’s wife, and how she’ll be ostracized once he’s killed, and surely he wouldn’t want that. It’s such a smart scene, and so beautifully acted. Time and again, we see Smiley lose himself in thought, in remembrance. I’ve read that some think Oldman’s performance in the movie is too minimalist, but there’s always something behind the minimalism. It’s not just a blank. And here? Where, tipsy, he’s allowed to show a modicum of emotion? My god. One wonders how actors lose themselves in thought this way. Smiley admits that in trying to win over Karla he’d revealed too much of himself—how much his wife meant to him—while Karla, silent, got on a plane, keeping Smiley’s cigarette lighter: To George, from Ann. All my love. But in revealing nothing, Karla had revealed something. Smiley:
That’s how I know he can be beaten. Because he’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.
Then he tells Peter (because he knows?) that Peter will now be a target and better get his house in order. Cut to: Peter breaking up with his boyfriend, then crying to himself when he’s alone. Earlier, Connie Sachs had greeted Smiley with the comment, “I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked.” Smiley himself, of course, is estranged from his wife, who had the affair with Haydon. These are the anti-James Bonds. It’s lonely out there for a secret agent.
Ultimately we get our answer, we find our spy, but the murkiness never goes away. The mole is not Alleline, the obvious choice, but Haydon, the best friend. He seduced Smiley’s wife at Karla’s bequest so Smiley wouldn’t be able to see him clearly. Smart. “Witchcraft” is bullshit. MI6 was played to get to the Americans. Control suspected but the higher-ups, like the permanent undersecretary, liked Alleline’s results and believed what they wanted to believe. It’s the numbers game all over again.
“Tinker Tailor” is a well-made movie for smart audiences. It conjures up the dread, ominousness, and moral ambiguity of the Cold War. It gives us a great lead performance and one of the best acting ensembles in years. But it’s a tough movie to come to cold. I was lost for much of the movie (like Smiley, I suppose), pieced it together only at the end (again, like Smiley), but feel I missed out on all the subtleties in between. I’ll probably go again. It’s a movie worth seeing but probably more worth seeing twice.
Movie Review: Friends with Benefits (2011)
WARNING: REVIEW WITH SPOILERS
“Friends with Benefits” wants to comment upon the problem with romantic comedies while delivering a better romantic comedy. So Jamie (Mila Kunis) yells at a poster of recent rom-com queen Katherine Heigl, calling her a liar for the upbeat endings of her movies, but this movie still gives us an upbeat ending. So Dylan (Justin Timberlake) mocks the obviousness of the genre’s original soundtrack music when the indie-pop soundtrack of this film is equally obvious.
Those other rom-coms are fake, this rom-com is saying. We’re real.
But it’s not.
Dylan’s New York apartment alone pissed me off. He’s an LA dude, headhunted by Jamie for GQ magazine to be its art director in New York. When he shows up, there’s a new apartment waiting for him: spacious, impeccably designed, wide glass-door refrigerator, stunning view of the city.
Really? On an art director’s salary?
I happened to be watching this thing with a woman who was art director of Newsweek magazine from 1985 to 1995—back when, you know, magazines meant something—so I asked her. Did she live like that? Did she live close to that?
“You live that way in New York if you’re, like, a gazillionaire,” she said.
The beginning alone pissed me off. Not the beginning-beginning, when we see Dylan talking on his cell, late for a date, and we see Jamie talking on her cell, waiting for her date, and we think they’re talking to each other when really she’s waiting on Andy Samberg in New York, who’s about to break up with her, and he’s late for Emma Stone in LA, who’s about to break up with him. That was a good bit.
No, it’s when he flies to New York, headhunted by her, and she meets him at the airport, takes him to GQ, waits for him outside, takes him out for drinks, takes him to her secret spot in Manhattan—the roof of a building, which is her mountaintop, she says, her place of solitude—and then into the middle of a flash mob in Times Square, singing (for him?) “New York, New York.” After all that, he finally decides to take the job.
In other words, in the middle of a global financial meltdown, where most people are either underemployed or unemployed, we get to watch this little shit get wined and dined to take a high-paying job at a well-known publication in the most dynamic city in the world so he can live in this insane apartment where he gets to fuck Mila Kunis on a regular basis?
The early back-and-forth between Jamie and Dylan is awful. She’s from New York, see, so she’s blunt and a power walker, and he’s from LA, see, so he’s polite and waits for streetlights. She’s dynamic, he’s blank. Many things about her say “headhunter.” Not much about him says “art director.” It says “former boy-band member who’s a dynamic performer and can act a little but not well enough to make you believe he’s an art director for a magazine.”
They work out the deal—the friends-with-benefits deal—on the couch. Twenty years earlier, NBC aired an episode of “Seinfeld,” called “The Deal,” in which Jerry and Elaine worked out a FWB deal on the couch. They came up with a set of rules so they could have “this” (the friendship) as well as “that” (the sex). It was a funny episode. It felt true. And it lasted a half hour—twenty minutes with commercials. “Friends with Benefits” takes 90 minutes longer to deliver something much less funny and much less true.
Other characters show up about a half-hour in. Thank God. Jamie’s mom (Patricia Clarkson) is man-hungry and flakey. Dylan’s dad (Richard Jenkins) has early-stages Alzheimer’s and Dylan is often embarrassed by him—which he’ll overcome in a big way in the third act. Dylan has a nephew who does elaborate magic tricks that don’t quite work. Shaun White makes unnecessary cameos. It’s boy meets girl, boy fucks girl, boy befriends girl, boy insults girl, boy gets girl back in the final reel through his own flash mob singing the song he’s sung throughout the movie, “Closing Time” by Semisonic. I like that song (“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”) but here it helps Jamie and Dylan get together. Happily-ever-after is implied. It’s the movies, where every new beginning leads to the same effin' Hollywood end.
Movie Review: Le Havre (2011)
Early in the French-Finnish film “Le Havre,” the main character, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), is sharing drinks with Yvette (Evelyne Didi ), the owner of “La Moderne,” a small neighborhood pub. He’s telling her about his wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), who was recently diagnosed with cancer. It’s bad, this cancer, but Marcel doesn’t know that. Arletty convinced her doctor to tell him otherwise. So on this night, a free drink in hand, Marcel has some relief. “Benign,” he says of the cancer with a smile. “Completely benign.”
Those were my thoughts about “Le Havre.” The film is benign. Completely benign.
Marcel, a handsome man in his 60s, ekes out a living as a shoeshine in the French port city of Le Havre. As the film opens, people flood out at a subway stop and past two shoeshines, Marcel and Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen), who look down at everyone’s shoes, hoping for the dress variety but generally getting the sloppy shoes most of us wear. Then a shifty-eyed man in a suit, with dress shoes and a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, arrives. He stops to get a shoeshine from Marcel, less because he wants one than as a distraction against those who are pursuing him. Doesn’t work. They gather. He sees them here ... and there. When he bolts, they follow. Most movies would follow as well, since most movies are about such things; but Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (“The Man Without a Past”) stays on the men who shine shoes. He stays with the down-but-not-quite-out in this port city equidistant between Paris and London.
Marcel is a bit of rascal who steals bread, lets bills linger, but has the charm to get away with it. His wife awaits his return, then sends him off for an aperitif while she cooks, then shines his shoes while he sleeps. They keep what savings they have in a small tin box. The next day he does it again. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, but, since this is France, what goes into the mouth is pretty good.
Meanwhile, a port nightwatchman making the rounds taps onto a large cargo container and hears a baby cry. Authorities are alerted, including Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). They expect dead bodies but when the container is opened an entire west African family is nonchalantly living there, including Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who, seeing his chance, stands, waits a bit, looks at an elder, who nods, then makes a dash, or a kind of half-jog to the front of the container, where he stops, confronted, or not, by three or four cops. They all stare at each other with blank expressions. Then Idrissa makes a dash, or a kind of half-jog, down a row of containers to safety. No one tries to stop him, although one cop pulls a gun and aims it before Inspector Monet tells him to put it away.
It’s a pivotal scene for content as much as tone. But what to make of the tone? Some might be amused by its purposeful inauthenticity. They might like the stiffness and amateurishness of it all. It might remind them of Wes Anderson x 10. Me, I saw little charm and less amusement.
These two characters, Idrissa and Marcel, cross paths, of course. As the newspapers splash scary headlines about the escaped youth, wondering if he has links to al Qaeda, Marcel shelters him. When the police close in, the neighborhood shelters Marcel. When $3,000 is needed to smuggle the kid to London, where his mother works in a Chinese laundry, Marcel convinces local rock star, and homunculus, “Little Bob” (Roberto Piazza), to throw a charity concert. The rest of the money Marcel pulls from the small tin box. When Inspector Monet figures out everything, he, too, turns out to be benign, and misdirects the other cops to allow Idrissa’s escape. The world’s a nice place. The common people—except for a nasty neighbor—stick together.
All of these good deeds do not go unrewarded, either. Yvette makes a recovery that astounds her doctors and returns home with Marcel. “Look Marcel,” she says. “The cherry tree blooms. I’ll make dinner right away.” The End.
“Le Havre” made me laugh a few times. I like the names, the homage, Kaurismäki chose for his characters. Marcel for Marceau or Carne? Marx for Groucho, Harpo or Karl? Arletty obviously for the great French actress. Yvette for Mimeux? Even Marcel’s dog, Laika, is named for the Russian dog who was shot into space in the 1950s, and whom Ingemar eulogizes throughout Lase Hallstrom’s great film, “My Life as a Dog.”
But the film does nothing for me. It feels fake in tone and fake in content and fake in lesson. What’s the point of it? It’s been called “Keatonesque,” after Buster, but Keaton was the deadpan comedian amid great turmoil, which he often unknowingly caused. Here, Marcel is the lively character, the charmer, amid a deadpan world. Can you celebrate life by staring at it blankly? I think not, but Kaurismäki seems to think so.
Fans of “The Man Without a Past” should know: I didn’t like that one, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, either.
Movie Review: Take Shelter (2011)
WARNING: There are SPOILERS coming—the likes of which none of us have ever SEEN!
Why not “Shelter”? Why not “Storm”? Isn’t that more direct? What do you get when you add that clunky verb to the title?
You get the imperative. You get a warning. But who’s giving the warning, who’s receiving it, and what are we being warned about?
Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a blue-collar worker in Elyria, Ohio, with a beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a three-year-old, deaf daughter named Hannah (Tova Stewart). For a Michael Shannon character, he's fairly normal. We see him sign “I love you” to her in the morning. We see him come home late at night and stand by her bedroom door as she sleeps. “I still take off my boots to not wake her,” he tells his wife when she comes up and puts her arms around him. Life is still a struggle. Samantha sews to make extra money. Hannah isn’t playing with other children. But it’s not bad. “You got a good life, Curtis,” his friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham, a fellow “Boardwalk Empire” actor) tells him. “I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.”
Then Curtis begins to have bad dreams.
The dreams take the same form. A storm is coming and it begins to rain. But it’s not water—it has the consistency of motor oil—and Hannah is imperiled and/or Curtis is attacked. In one dream his dog gets him. In another, it’s Dewart. People attack them in their car and carry Hannah away. They attack them in their home and all of the furniture levitates. One morning, he wakes in a sweat. Another, he wets the bed. He hides all of this from his wife. She assumes he has a cold.
He begins to act badly. His dog has always been a beloved indoor dog but now Curtis sets up a small wire-mesh fence around the doghouse outside and sticks him there. “Sorry about this, buddy,” he says. He opens up the old storm shelter in the backyard, goes inside and breathes as if he's home. At the library he checks out books on mental illness—his mother first suffered from paranoid schizophrenia in her 30s, and he’s now 35—but on the way home he buys huge quantities of canned goods.
He keeps doing this kind of left hand/right hand thing. He seems to realize his paranoia is a consequence of his mental illness, and sees a therapist, and takes pills, etc., to be cured of it; but he still acts on the paranoia. Things must be done to get ready. So he and Dewart borrow equipment from work to dig a huge hole in the backyard to expand the shelter. He takes out a risky bank loan to pay for the expansion. “Are you out of your mind?” his wife asks.
Initially, the sleeping pills help. He wakes up, no bad dreams, white curtains billowing. But he’s merely chased the bad dreams into daylight. At work, under blue skies, he hears thunder that Dewart doesn’t. Driving home from a sign-language class, wife and daughter asleep in the back, he stops the car on the side of the road and watches a lightning storm light up the horizon. “Is anyone seeing this?” he wonders.
We assume the problem is compounded by his lack of communication. “If only he’d talk to his wife,” we think. He does and it doesn’t help.
When he isolates himself from anyone he dreams about—giving away his dog to his elder brother, talking the boss into taking Dewart off his crew—we wonder what would happen if he dreams about Samantha. Then he does. That morning he flinches away from her touch. A second later, he sees the boss in the backyard, looking over his expanded storm shelter, and panics. Samantha had managed to get their daughter an operation for a cochlear implant, and when she’s told that her husband’s insurance will pay for most of it, that he’s got good insurance, it’s like a rumbling of thunder in the distance. We know he’ll lose it. And he does. The operation is still five weeks away when the boss shows up, alerted by Dewart over the equipment “loan,” and fires him. There’s a great economical scene when Curtis drags himself back into the kitchen, where his wife is doing dishes. “I’ve been fired,” he says. She stops, doesn’t look at him, her back up. “What about the health insurance?” she asks. “I got two more weeks,” he answers. She walks up to him, slaps his face, takes their daughter on her hip, opens the side door, opens the screen door, leaves. The choreography alone recommends the scene.
At this point in the movie, we have two possibilities: Curtis is right and vindicated or he’s wrong and nuts. Generally, I'm not a fan of either/or movies.
This sense of limited choices is crystallized—gloriously, I should add—when Samantha insists they go to a Grange Hall function and eat lunch with their neighbors. They get nods, smiles, paper plates with chicken and baked beans. But Dewart is there, still angry over the betrayal, and he starts a fight with Curtis. But it’s Curtis, tall and lanky, who ends it with a kick, then stands and upends their long, fold-up table. And suddenly he's shouting at his neighbors like a Pentecostal preacher:
There’s a STORM coming! The likes of which none of us have ever SEEN! And not a one of us is prepared for it yet!
Up to this point, Curtis has been bottled up, and we’ve been bottled up with him, so the outburst itself is like a long-delayed storm. If he’s told anyone about his dreams, he’s mentioned them in mumbles, embarrassed, full of doubt. In this scene, doubt is removed. He sounds like a prophet. Or a crazy man. We wait to find out which.
We don’t wait long. That night he has another bad dream ... until Samantha wakes him because a real storm is bearing down on them. They grab their daughter and make for the shelter, where, inside, they huddle wearing gas masks and oxygen tanks, expecting the worst. After sleeping, their opinions diverge. Should they go outside? “What if it’s not over?” he asks, doom in his voice.
Oddly, I began to flash to a bad 1999 comedy, “Blast from the Past,” in which Christopher Walken plays a man in the early 1960s so paranoid about the Cold War that he builds an extensive bomb shelter in his backyard, down which he takes his family during the Cuban Missile crisis. They live there for 35 years. I’ve long thought that Shannon should play Walken’s son in a movie—there’s not only a physical resemblance but both men play determinedly off-kilter roles—and he does, in a sense, in this one. Thankfully, it’s in a better movie. It’s also a stunning performance by Shannon, who’s getting Oscar buzz.
But again, we're down to an either/or proposition. Either they stay in the shelter forever, perhaps even die there, or they go outside where the world is either ruined or being cleaned up after a nasty summer storm. It takes cajoling from Samantha to get them out. “This is what it means to stay with us,” she tells him. “This is something you have to do.” So he does. He opens the storm doors, shutting his eyes tightly on his imagined apocalypse ... only to open them on neighbors and workers cleaning up fallen branches and power lines after a bad summer storm.
Sitting in the audience, I was reminded of all the hand-wringing and apocalyptic-warnings of the U.S. after 9/11. What do you do with the thing you fear the most? Do you let it control you—this thing you can’t control? Do you take the family into the storm shelter, real or metaphorical, and hole up there? Or do you live your life? Most movies, and not just horror movies, teach us to fear, and “Take Shelter,” I felt, was teaching us the opposite. Its message was Rooseveltian: It was our fear we needed to fear. It took a tortured path, through an atmospheric, often painful movie, to this realization. But realization came.
Then it went. Curtis sees a psychiatrist, not just a therapist, who recommends distance from the storm shelter, the thing Curtis thinks will keep him safe. So off they go to the beach. What beach? I assume along Lake Erie. There, Curtis and his daughter build sand castles, those careful constructions designed to get wiped away, and he seems to be enjoying himself. Then Hannah points toward the water. He’s slow to respond, but when he does it’s with a mixture of shock and recognition and vindication, and he slowly stands; and in their beach house, Samantha sees it, too, and goes outside as the rain begins. But it’s not rain. She rubs the dirty substance between her fingers, as Curtis did in his dreams, and he looks back as if to say, “See?” She nods. She knows now. And only then does writer-director Jeff Nichols pull back so we can see what they see: a huge storm over Lake Erie, with multiple tornadoes bearing down on them, the likes of which none of us have ever seen.
That’s the end. That’s the image we take with us from the theater.
Afterwards, the four of us—Patricia, Vinnie, Laura and I—had dinner in Wallingford and talked about the movie. Vinnie couldn’t abide the new ending; he wanted the old ending. He only perked up slightly when I mentioned that the new ending could still be a dream, Curtis’ dream, or maybe even Samantha’s. Maybe she was in on it with him now. But that hardly resonates, does it? To me, if the ending is a dream, it makes the movie worse.
But what to make of the new ending? Curtis, instead of being a loon, a mild schizophrenic, is in fact a prophet; and the movie, instead of a mild warning against fear, is a stern warning to fear. The title, in this respect, could be part of that warning. “Take Shelter” isn’t just what Curtis does, it’s what Nichols is telling us to do. He’s telling us a storm is coming the likes of which none of us have ever seen. One assumes he’s talking about global warming/climate change. You could argue that “Take Shelter” is the most powerful movie about climate change ever made because it isn’t about climate change until the very end. Until it’s too late. “Is anyone seeing this?” Indeed.
Unless you choose to see the storm as a metaphor. In which case it could be about ... anything: corporations, terrorism, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama. Prophets of the world unite! The only thing we have to fear is... the end of everything we know and love. And it’s right around the corner.