Running time: 121 minutes, Rated R
The ill storm is forming. It rains motor oil and dead crows. Thunder sounds from nowhere and lightening lashes at the Earth with a Roman sadism. A kind of black twister touches down to the mortal plane to usher in Revelation: the age of waste. At its eye suffers a defiant man who fears his family will also get swept up if he doesn’t shelter them from the impending storm. What weighs heaviest on him is…where to shelter them? Inside — or outside. Now, if all of this sounds incredibly vague and poetically experimental for a plot synopsis, it’s because I made a conscious decision that the less you know about this film the more awed you’ll be your first time. Just let it be known that in my eyes; this is the best film of last year. If that statement has any value to you, cease this informative venture and check out the DVD or Blu-ray at a local Redbox (as your cheapest, least risky option. I’d even say it’s worth the 20-30 dollar purchase if you’ve got some spending money and a daring, movie loving heart.) If you’re the kind of person who needs more insight before taking a leap of faith, read on knowing that I will divulge a fraction of the movie’s magic.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) lives native to the the broad, open flat lands of the Ohio countryside. The accommodating geography is effectively key as it is a place already completely vulnerable to the elements that roam through the area on a regular basis. In Tornado Alley, rains and worse do start without warning — besides maybe the lightless clouds forming beyond the horizon, although by then it could be too late. The helter-skelter climate is hardly on the minds though of Midwestern family men like Curtis, who lives in Jeffersonian content with his loving wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain,) and their deaf but hopeful daughter (Tova Stewart.) When he begins to get plagued by visions as described above that often develop from the everyday, superficial storms in his life however, he starts to nervously renovate his tornado shelter outback for more “permanent” lodgings. It’s a frightening sequence the first time Curtis leads his family into the murkiness of that shelter. They tell him after hours that the storm is done and they want to go outside. His will stands to block the doorway, to keep out the storm at any cost.
Jeff Nichols’ second directorial effort and script has been lauded by many to be an American masterpiece. I’d be inclined to agree with them. The pacing is artistically poised with every plot point placed perfectly. Along with deeply psychoanalytic characterization and gorgeous cinematography, it makes a very modest budget of $5 million (which is well spent on the seamless visual effects in his nightmares) look epic. David Wingo’s ambiently divine score feels so uniquely American that it should be up there with Max Steiner’s work in Gone with the Wind. Jessica Chastain starred in seven greatly received films last year. Seven! The Help and The Debt were her commercial successes. Tree of Life and this one were her arthouse hits. She’s played fresh variations on the devoted wife before, but here, she defends her daughter while simultaneously helping her Curtis go toe-to-toe with his waking dreams.
Every other cast member competently plays their part, but this movie belongs to its star. Michael Shannon has been a veteran character actor of the highest caliber for the last decade. He was skimmed an Oscar in 2008 for his genius in Revolutionary Road (although the winner was kind of set in stone, being a posthumous nominee and all,) and he was skimmed a nomination altogether this 84th ceremony. No matter, Shannon has got a lot of years left and this film couldn’t have financially campaigned for the award anyway. What he did do was cement himself as one of the finest actors of his generation, hands down. He’s always explored the other side of consciousness; this time he brought you with him.
Final Verdict: Imagine “A Beautiful Mind” without the Hollywood catharsis or budget,which is more in line with Nichols’ on-location, more representational style of filmmaking anyways. If anything, see Shannon’s movie. See all his movies, but especially experience the qualitative Oscar winner of 2011.