Monday, October 17, 2011

Black Sheep interviews MICHAEL SHANNON

When I sat down to speak with Michael Shannon about his mesmerizing performance in Jeff Nichols’ equally transfixing film, TAKE SHELTER, Hurricane Irene had just paid a visit to his hometown, Manhattan. The media had made out the event to be potentially catastrophic but the weather came and went without much damage to mention. The media may have had egg on their faces but what if they were right? One day, they very well might be.

In TAKE SHELTER, Shannon plays Curtis, a husband, a father, a construction foreman and a good man. Curtis has a secret though; Curtis is having visions that a storm that could end all storms is coming and he isn’t quite sure how to deal with that. “I don’t think he’s a prophet,” Shannon begins to explain of Curtis. “I don’t think Curtis has necessarily even thought it out to the extent that he thinks the end of the world is coming. I think it’s much more poetic than that.”

That it certainly is. When Curtis dreams, he sees rain of a different colour than we are accustomed to, falling from the sky. Whatever it is that is falling from the sky, it is potent and powerful and it will be the game changer humanity has managed to avoid for centuries now. Rather than presume too specifically what that would will be like though, Nichols chooses to keep things ambiguous, which is what Shannon loves about the film. “The sky is such a beautiful poetic image. People ask why can’t he just run but you can’t run from the sky.”

The supernatural elements of TAKE SHELTER are counterbalanced with Curtis’ family life, which is tested greatly by his mounting paranoia. In yet another stellar supporting turn, Jessica Chastain plays opposite Shannon as his wife. Their marriage is already braving its own storm of sorts, with their daughter facing the possibility of permanent and total hearing loss. It was the scenes with Curtis’ daughter (played by Tova Stewart) that Shannon found most disturbing and difficult. “I have a 3-year old daughter. The thought of some disaster happening to her, it’s not something I can digest. I think that’s what is so terrifying about what’s happening to Curtis is that he’s lost the ability to block it out.”

That’s an understatement. Faced with a potentially apocalyptic storm, Curtis begins expanding an underground shelter in his backyard. Naturally, this tips off his friends and family to his increasingly bizarre behaviour. Complicating matters further, Curtis’ mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was roughly Curtis’ current age. This begs the question, is this madness or is this divine intervention?

“I think what Curtis is experiencing beyond schizophrenia is just feeling unsafe because he doesn’t know who’s running the show,” Shannon clarifies. Curiously enough, Curtis is not a churchgoer, unlike the rest of his family, and yet God has chosen him to warn of what’s coming. Or, he’s totally losing it. It could go either way. “For me, one of the reasons I was interested in doing the film, is that more metaphysical, spiritual component,” says Shannon, a non-churchgoer himself.

It is these kinds of delicate layers that inform both Shannon’s performance, one that will certainly come up come awards season, and the effectiveness of TAKE SHELTER itself. “To me, the inherent question is, if you don’t believe in God or if you’re not religious, then isn’t the world a terrifying place?” Shannon asks, of both his audience and himself. “Because everything is arbitrary and nature is very arbitrary. Nature is not malicious; it’s not like it wants to destroy your house but its there and its undeniable. It’s been that way for centuries. Just ask the dinosaurs.”

Would that I could but we all know how that turned out. If only the dinosaur having premonitions had spoken up.

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