Jeff Nichols’s second feature, Take Shelter, is almost as barmy as its protagonist, a man ravaged by apocalyptic visions and nightmares. But Nichols has a genius for making landscapes and everyday objects resonate like crazy, for nailing the texture of dread. Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichols’s stunning debut, Shotgun Stories, plays Curtis, a crew chief for an Ohio sand-mining company with a tireless wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who sells homemade crafts at a flea market, and a deaf little girl, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who’s in a lonely world of her own. In Curtis’s dreams (sleeping and waking), storms bring rain with the viscosity of oil, his dog rips him to pieces, locusts blot out the sun, and humans stagger through the night like movie zombies. Curtis knows it might all be in his head: His mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at about the same age he is now. More and more, he devotes his hours to prepping the storm shelter in his backyard for—what? Hurricane? Flood? Plague? Whatever it is, it will be like nothing the world has ever seen.
The danger in casting Shannon instead of a milder soul is that he comes to each part with a personal haunted house and that his latest unraveling might seem like déjà vu. But the actor, his great, overhanging brow creased with confusion, is a truly anguished presence, mythically inchoate. Nichols makes sure what’s eating Curtis is eating you, too. He breaks down scenes into images of destruction—not just obvious ones, like funnel clouds and spiderwebs of lightning across the Ohio fields, but chains and valves and shovels scoring the earth. Nichols and his cinematographer, Adam Stone, evoke the feeling of being inside a house staring out at a deluge—the kind of will-it-never-stop rain that makes even home-sweet-home seem like an emergency shelter.
Take Shelter would seem as obvious as its title if the early scenes weren’t so lovingly detailed. Stewart’s Hannah has a quiet but beseeching presence, and Shannon’s attempts at sign language make him seem like the gentlest of giants. And Chastain turns an entirely reactive part into a major presence. Is she the most vivid actress to hit the screen in years—maybe decades? On the basis of this film and Jolene and The Debt and even The Tree of Life, I’ll say she just might be. Partly it’s her otherworldly beauty, which writer Tom Shone describes as “of that fascinatingly multi-planed sort—alternately luscious and drawn—that makes you hungry for as many angles as possible.” But it’s also how she moves, how her dancer’s body physicalizes emotion, in this case her love for her daughter (through her fervent signing) and the fear of her husband’s escalating mania. She can tense a muscle and charge the space.
Nichols has a good eye for actors—I wanted even more of Shea Whigham as Curtis’s hangdog co-worker and Ray McKinnon as his mysteriously insinuating older brother. And his feelers for the country’s bad vibes are supernaturally keen. Shotgun Stories centered on a feud between two sets of half-brothers, and it captured the connection between fatherlessness and the impulse to wreak vengeance like no American film I’ve seen. The obvious comparison to Take Shelter is Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a woman (Julianne Moore) is slowly dying from modern life. The male version comes a decade and a half later, at a time when the Book of Revelation has entered mainstream politics, when each year brings a new prediction of the exact date the world will end, when hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and heat waves and melting ice caps and industrial accidents and no jobs and Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes are fixtures of our conscious and possibly unconscious lives. The end of Take Shelter is … we’ll talk after you see it. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. This is a terrific monster-movie manqué—a pure distillation of portent.
The title 50/50 denotes the chance Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has of surviving (and, for that matter, not surviving) a rare spinal cancer—odds that his loud pal Kyle (Seth Rogen) points out would be the best ever if he were a casino game. That’s the kind of line that puts the movie over. As a joke, it’s more shrill than funny. As an expression of Kyle’s divided impulses—to cry out in horror and to say something upbeat—it’s funny and touching. Unlike most disease-of-the-week movies, 50/50 is itself split: Its focus lies half on the young man, blindsided by the prospect of a swift and early death, half on the people who behave like idiots in the face of his illness. Cancer becomes a springboard for tragicomedy instead of bathos.
What a tightrope this movie is. Director Jonathan Levine and screenwriter Will Reiser take a few spills early on. The doctor who gives Adam the diagnosis is too stridently impersonal—a scene worthy of the dire Diablo Cody. It’s a mistake to have Adam haltingly break the news to his protective mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), by asking if she’s seen Terms of Endearment: Now we’re in Neil Simon country. But things improve when Diane tries frantically to make him drink green tea because it (supposedly) cuts the risk of cancer by 15 percent—to which Adam cries, “I already have cancer.” The pacing helps. Huston and Gordon-Levitt get a good babble going, and Rogen’s driving timing is as sharp as anyone’s: Watch Kyle use Adam’s cancer to generate sympathy in pretty girls, briskly compensating for his friend’s cynical rejoinders: “He still has his sense of humor! It’s inspirational!” Bryce Dallas Howard has been fighting her demure good looks in movies like The Help, and she’s marvelous as Adam’s artist girlfriend, who knows the right supportive lines but can’t begin to cope with someone losing hair and puking: The harder she tries, the more she radiates insincerity.
But the movie belongs to Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick as his painfully green therapist. Gordon-Levitt still shows traces of the sitcom juvenile he was—now wasting away in front of us, his wide mouth grimly set. He’s the third patient of Kendrick’s Katherine, who hasn’t learned not to sound as if she’s following a script. She’s terrible at what she does, at least at this juncture, but what comes through—as she backtracks and restarts and blurts ahead—is her desire to be liked, to be helpful, to show empathy. Willful perkiness has never seemed so poignant. You want him to survive so they can smooch.
Shot more than six years ago, heavily edited by many hands, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is finally ready for release. No wonder it took so long. The last hour is a fiasco, full of mismatched shots, subplots from nowhere, and 360-degree pans that make you want to ship the director to film school. But the first hour and change is jaw-dropping in a good way—that distinctive Lonergan way, the characters given their tongues and allowed to go wherever their fancies (and neuroses) take them, story structure be damned. Anna Paquin plays Lisa, the too-poised Manhattan 17-year-old who inadvertently triggers a fatal bus crash and spends a long time acting out before … acting.* It’s an amazingly brave, all-out performance, marred only by atrocious cinematography. J. Smith-Cameron plays her actress mother, Jeannie Berlin the best friend of the victim, Kieran Culkin the laid-back hipster Lisa invites to take her virginity. This is the first bad movie that has ever made me call for a sequel—to get it all right. *This article has been corrected to show that Paquin’s character is named Lisa, not Margaret.