Chastain is the second coming of an order of actresses in the Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet mold, imbued with that maddeningly conflicting combination of fiery spirits and ethereal grace that somehow co-exist in them and, more importantly, then expertly applied to achieve balance alongside a variety of co-stars with their own complex charismatic matrixes.
In Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, opposite Brad Pitt’s domineering authoritarian father, Chastain is the graceful counterpoint, the soft maternal essence that cushions the harsh grip of that male tough love. And it would seem that she would serve a similar function as Samantha, the mother and wife in writer-director Jeff Nichols’ (Ohio-set) production Take Shelter, which has gathered festival acclaim at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto.
Faced with another strong, unsettling male lead — Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) — another driven, possibly delusional family man, Chastain uses her dual characteristics as an effective one-two punch to complement Shannon’s performance, to humanize what could have been one-note rampaging lunacy.
Curtis (Shannon) begins having apocalyptic dreams that seep into the fabric of his life, leading him to question whether he is mentally unstable (like his mother) or truly a vessel for prophetic visions.
Samantha worries about his increasing instability, but she also has the larger considerations of the family, in particular a child in need of surgical treatment and dealing with ever-present economic woes. Her concern is tempered with steely resolve to keep the family safe no matter what, even if it means distancing herself from Curtis’ more irrational actions.
We have seen, and even come to appreciate, the strange allure of Shannon. He has cast his eerie glow over a host of films, but audiences and critics possibly began taking real notice of him in 2006, when he went all buggy as a mentally unstable war vet shacked up in a seedy motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug. That performance didn’t quite work because the dark, dead-eyed Shannon was never given the chance to offer a glimpse of believable sanity. It was in him, though, as he proved, first by shifting to a more traditional heroic pose in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and then in his brief yet memorable turn in Revolutionary Road.
And now we can watch him every week on Boardwalk Empire, the latest epic from HBO, as Agent Nelson Van Alden, a righteous man tempted and broken by the burgeoning din of sin on the Jersey shore. The battle between good and evil, with evil taking various forms, rages and roils in Shannon. Whether it be the sins of the flesh or the far trickier assaults on the mind and spirit that end up calling in to question the reality of the senses, Shannon is the human embodiment of the battlefield.
But in Take Shelter Nichols draws on Chastain’s good nature, which has shined through each and every role of her current charm offensive. Goodness lies at the heart of it, but there is subtlety that shifts the tone and tenor of each performance. Chastain is a rare performer, one who can rise to a level of ubiquity that would send audiences scurrying for shelter, but somehow we sit anxiously through each turn, mesmerized by the thought and consideration that has gone into creating a unique person from mere words on the page. There is distinct life in her characters and humanity in those narrative worlds thanks to her efforts.
Take Shelter earns our emotional involvement and our sympathy rather than an easy and early dismissal for the hokey is he or isn’t he crazy, a religious freak or a guy caught up in a real paranormal phenomenon, because Chastain supports Shannon like we would given the same circumstances. She is the Everywoman standing by her man and family with shrewd common sense, even when there’s no other rational explanation. That’s what is meant when people talk about shelter from the storm. Grade: A-
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