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Craven: Take Shelter

12/08/11 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(Host) Commentator Jay Craven saw the new independent film, "Take Shelter" at the Sundance Film Festival last January.  But he's still thinking about it.

(Craven)  I sometimes wonder what would happen to smart, inventive, and provocative independent films if the Sundance Film Festival didn't exist to provide a launching pad for new talent.  Twenty-five years ago, the festival was probably less needed.  There weren't as many films and truly independent distributors formed close bonds with filmmakers to strategize ways to get noticed. Today, all the clout that Sundance provides is essential for any independent film seeking to find a national audience.

The 2011 Sundance festival awarded its grand prize to a picture that then went on to win the top Critics Week award at Cannes.  It has been nominated for more Independent Spirit prizes than any other film this year.  But most people have probably never heard of the picture. "Take Shelter" is now making the rounds at Vermont theaters.  The picture stars Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as a young mid-western couple that wrestles with Shannon's reaction to the prospect of ominous weather.  Unsettled by his sense of a big storm coming, Shannon begins to imagine looming clouds.  He dreams of toxic rain.  He secretly mortgages his family's house and makes off with a bulldozer from his construction site-to build an underground shelter for his family. His anxiety mounts and he starts to wonder if his mother's history of depression could be making things worse for him.  His wife tries to support him-but his fears can't be easily assuaged.  He becomes quite vulnerable, and his actions become unintentionally dangerous to his family.

"Take Shelter" has earned nearly universal critical praise for its rich performances and potent themes. It doesn't preach but its accumulating narrative is powerful and unconventional. New York Times critic A.O. Scott articulated much of what I felt, leaving the theater at Sundance and thinking about the picture long afterward.  He called the film "remarkable" for its effective evocation of our contemporary age, with its growing anxieties rooted in the sense that things seem out of whack-a shaky economy despite Americans' reputation for hard work, political dysfunction and paralysis in Washington, perpetual wars on terror, long-standing social benefits like social security now being debated, under-resourced communities struggling, and, yes, looming weather. "Even normalcy can seem awfully precarious," writes Scott. 

"Take Shelter" is the kind of film that can cause us to stop and reflect on what's important. There are other pictures that have done this over the years--I'm thinking of "Network", "The Grapes of Wrath," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Lives of Others" and even "Bonnie and Clyde" which prompted discussions about violence during the Vietnam era.  And I'm reminded of timely satires like "Dr. Strangelove" and "Being There."

October statistics show how 54% of America's unemployed say they experience mental health issues related to their financial insecurity.  I think that explains the difference between "Take Shelter" and the other films I've mentioned.  Those pictures show us situations we can view from some distance.  "Take Shelter" reaches us where we live.

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