Powerhouse acting from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain makes this ambiguous exercise in visual poetry eminently watchable and compelling, but can’t save this festival fave Oscar bait from falling into the trap of trying to be too many things at once.
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are easily two of this generation’s best actors, each on the verge of their own major breakout. Shannon has recently been seen stealing scenes in Boardwalk Empire and was an Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road. Chastain became a household name in Hollywood following her turn as Brad Pitt‘s wife in the divisive Terence Malick film The Tree of Life. They show off why that’s the case here.
Shannon plays Curtis LaFourche, a man on the verge of insanity–his dreams of the apocalypse are genuinely scary (kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols for pulling that off)–who, as a prototypical American dream father (loves his wife and kids, provides for them, keeps his emotions in check and leads them in all decisions), feels obligated to protect and stand by his family, begins to build a storm shelter in preparation for the storm that he thinks is about to come. The real storm, however, is Curtis himself, who spirals out of control into a deep obsession and sinks, or nearly sinks, his family with him (depending on your interpretation of the ending). Chastain plays Curtis’ normal housewife, who worries about him and loves him dearly, but gets angry at his impulsive actions and dreary attitude like anyone would. Her subtle, nuanced and very real portrayal deserves at least an Oscar nomination, if not a win.
Supporting performances are stellar. Katy Mixon, Ray McKinnon, and Tova Stewart bring a lot to the film in small doses; each does a good job of underplaying their characters to create a sense of normalcy in the craziness that’s unfolding before them.
It’s in the structure where the film doesn’t quite put itself together. As a series of shots, scenes, moments, sequences, the film is brilliant. It’s poetry. But this doesn’t make for a good story. Nichols, a talented and versatile director, makes several genres work well individually in the film–it’s a family drama, a supernatural horror, a psychological thriller, a gorgeous art film, and a character study at various times–but that’s where the problem lies. The film feels disconnected, and the climax felt odd and out of place; my friend (who also saw it) and I agreed that we thought the film was likely to end at one climactic point, but moved on and created an even more ambiguous epilogue. While compelling to watch with a very interesting concept–maybe this is just me–I didn’t feel that the film clicked.
The film’s score, by David Wingo, is highly intriguing, using a recurring major-dissonant-minor pattern that is disorienting to the viewer/listener. Tech credits are stellar all-around. For a low-budget movie, the effects are awesome, the cinematography (by Adam Stone) is gorgeous but not too intrusive, like Roger Deakins‘ best work, and Parke Gregg makes the film coherent, insane and at times incredibly scary through smart editing.
I’d recommend seeing it to decide for yourself. Most critics loved the film (97% on Rotten Tomatoes), and the acting is so magnificent, it’s quite possible that Shannon and Chastain could take the Oscars.
A song I was surprised to see missing from the film, which seemed to fit, was Piers Faccini’s “A Storm Is Going to Come”.
So here’s a download.