The TIFF Spew: Take Shelter and We Need To Talk About Kevin

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Daily reviews of some of the best and worst movies to screen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival…

Take Shelter

Director: Jeff Nichols

Stars: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham

Sometimes it feels like Michael Shannon is one of the best kept secrets in film. Tall and sporting an intense pair of sunken eyes like an intimidating version of Steve Buscemi, Shannon is easily one of the finest character actors working today. Yet, he’s managed to maintain obscurity despite landing an Oscar nomination in 2009 for Revolutionary Road.

That’ll all change soon thanks to a high profile role in the upcoming Man Of Steel, but more importantly his extraordinary and awards-worthy work in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Shannon stars as a rural father and husband who inexplicably starts having intense, vivid dreams about an impending apocalypse. In response, he sets to work building a massive underground shelter in his backyard to protect his family like any good/psychotic father would. The problem is that no one else shares his visions and friends and family are concerned that he may have inherited some delusional tendencies from his institutionalized mother.

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Shannon is astounding in the role of a man uncertain if he’s loosing his mind. Pathetically sympathetic in one scene and frighteningly irrational the next, it’s impossible to tell what’s happening from the outside and Shannon keeps you gripped for every second, crazy or not. The only problem is that writer/director Jeff Nichols (who previously worked wonders with Shannon on Shotgun Stories) can’t seem to decide on his protagonist’s mental state either.

The mystery and ambiguity is what drives the film, but in the final scenes Nichols tries to have it both ways, leading to a pretty unsatisfying conclusion. Fortunately, the journey is more than enough to overcome the destination with Nichols dipping into the horror movie director’s handbook to create some terrifying and batshit insane dreams that will make you cheer on Shannon’s irrational behavior until he does something even more batshit insane himself.

If Michael Shannon doesn’t end up nominated for an Oscar this winter then the Academy should be disbanded. Unless of course Take Shelter isn’t released this year, then I’ll let it slide. But only for 12 months (I’m harsh, but fair). This is a gripping and intense psychological thriller that demands to be seen for the mind-blowing central performance alone.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Stars: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

It's hard to imagine that you’ll see a movie more disturbing and depressing in 2011 than We Need to Talk About Kevin, but chances are you won’t see anything else nearly as good either. Sometimes downbeat darkness is worth it and this is one of those times. The film stars the incomparable Tilda Swinton as the unstable mother of a deeply disturbed child (it’s funny how those things can be passed along, isn’t it?). Her son is responsible for a Columbine-style incident and the film plays in a fractured narrative mirroring her mental state following the tragedy.

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Swinton’s character is going through her memories trying to determine where she went wrong and it appears that while she was a cold, distant, and occasionally abusive mother, her son was an equally cold, distant, but frequently abusive child. The scars go both ways. Fortunately writer/director Lynne Ramsay never says this out loud in her chilling adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel.

There’s no unnecessary scene where a psychologist lays the themes of the movie bare. Instead, Ramsay tells her story as an almost purely sensory experience of disconnected images. Time is loose in the movie, with Ramsay dipping in and out of flashbacks. She plays her cards close to her chest and the whole picture doesn’t come together until the closing moments even if the beginning, middle, and end of the story don’t necessarily appear on screen in that order.

It all probably sounds pretentious and in a way it is. This is an unapologetic art movie that has in no way been groomed for mass consumption. That doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible though. The film does have an element of an “evil kid” horror movie in The Bad Seed vein with absolutely terrifying performances from the actors playing the child (Jasper Newell) and teenage (Ezra Miller) versions of the titular Kevin. There is an undeniable creep factor to the film that’s not to be ignored; it’s just that Ramsay isn’t concerned simply with shock value. Her film is about the moral and psychological implications of these events as much as the creep-outs.

Then of course as you’d expect from a movie featuring John C. Reilly, there’s also a healthy dose of pitch black humor to counteract all of the harsh tragedy ever so slightly (though the movie is a downer overall, if you haven’t figured that out yet). Throw in an incredible, evocative score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (whose only previous film credit is the remarkable music for There Will Be Blood) and you’ve got yourself a deeply troubling and intellectually stimulating mini-masterpiece. This isn’t a film for everybody, but for the small and inevitably vocal group of supporters of Ramsay’s twisted vision, it’s going to be one of the most beloved films of the year.

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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