Apocalypse now and again: Take Shelter, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia

by Mark Burger

Michael Shannon notched one of his best big-screen turns in 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also marked the auspicious feature debut of writer/director (and UNC School of the Arts graduate) Jeff Nichols. The two have collaborated again with Take Shelter ( ), an effective, intense psychological drama that proves the two a potent duo.

Shannon’s Curtis is a likable, hard-working Everyman for whom everyday normalcy has become unbearably abnormal when he begins experiencing nightmares and visions that portend the end of the world.

Given that his own mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia years before, Curtis worries that the affliction may be hereditary. Yet as the visions intensify, Curtis becomes consumed by doubt. Is he losing his mind, or is he actually seeing the future?

It’s not long before Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) notices changes in his behavior, particularly when he rebuilds an old underground shelter in their backyard. Soon enough, friends and neighbors are beginning to wonder about Curtis’ state of mind, which only furthers his sense of isolation and insecurity. He’s a good man trying desperately to do the best he can to keep his family safe.

By keeping the story grounded and direct, Nichols brings a distinctly human element to the proceedings. This is the sort of concept that could easily translate into an alarmist sci-fi melodrama. Nichols takes advantage of this in a great scene wherein Curtis observes a massive lightning storm in the night sky — only to realize that no one else sees it. It’s a perfect example of state-of-the-art visual effects enhancing the story instead of dominating it.

Not unlike Steven Soderbergh’s recent Contagion, Take Shelter is an incisive reflection of latter-day paranoia and fear, as seen and experienced through the eyes and actions of its characters. It’s a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — work.

Shannon again demonstrates why he’s one of our best young actors with a standout performance, well-matched with Chastain and newcomer Tova Stewart (a real find) as their daughter. Ray McKinnon (as Curtis’ brother), Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham and Baker all make solid impressions, even in the smallest roles.

The end of the world also figures prominently in Melancholia ( ), the latest epic from filmmaker/provocateur Lars von Trier. “Melancholia” is both the name of the planet apparently on a collision course with Earth, and it also happens to be the emotional state that many of the film’s characters find themselves in.

The story opens with the wedding of Jessica (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) in an ornate country manor on a gorgeous 18-hole golf course. As with most weddings, there’s as much tension in the air as excitement and anticipation — and not just because a giant planet is headed their way.

The wedding guests include Stellan Skarsgard (Alexander’s real-life father) as the best man, John Hurt as the father of the bride, Udo Kier as a wedding planner who inexplicably refuses to look at Justine directly, and Charlotte Rampling as the mother of the bride, an embittered woman who hates weddings and says as much during the toast. (Some party, eh?) Following the reception, a few insults are hurled and a few recriminations lobbed, after which most of the attending crowd departs — including the groom (but not before consummating the union with his bride in a sand trap). Departing with them is whatever irony and humor, however meager, the film has to offer.

Remaining behind to mope and wait for the inevitable are Justine and her estranged sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), along with Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) — who keeps telling her that Melancholia won’t hit — and their young son (Cameron Spurr). Not only are these characters melancholic, they’re tired, and they become tiresome. That’s not to downplay the sincerity and conviction with which Gainsbourg, Dunst and Sutherland play their roles, and it would be impossible to downplay or ignore the film’s amazing special effects.

When it comes to human nature, von Trier is not one to accentuate the positive. Just the opposite, in fact. Even when facing utter annihilation, the characters in Melancholia remain consumed by their pettiness, neuroses, and self-indulgences. Visually dazzling but dramatically inert, the film indicates that the world will end not with a bang, but with simpering and whimpering. It’s a portentous, too-often pretentious work from a filmmaker capable of greatness. There are some great things in Melancholia, but not enough of them.

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