TAKE SHELTER written and directed by Jeff Nichols, with Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham and Tova Stewart. A Mongrel Media release. 121 minutes. Opens Friday (October 14). See listing.
It's a calm afternoon in the middle of the Toronto Film Festival, and Michael Shannon is telling me about the time he scared the hell out of a roomful of people.
It happened during the shooting of a key scene set at a small-town fish fry in his new film, Take Shelter. Surrounded by his family and friends, Shannon's character, Curtis, finally lets loose and delivers a frenzied speech about the apocalyptic nightmares that have been plaguing him. It's a terrifying performance from an actor who's already quite imposing - and most of his audience had no idea it was coming.
"It was an interesting scenario," Shannon says, letting the understatement sink in. "There were a bunch of people in that scene who were extras from the town, and they didn't really know the story of the film, and they didn't know what they were in for. You know, they were there under [the] premise that it was the neighbourhood fish fry - just sit and enjoy your dinner and have a conversation. And then all of a sudden I'm walking around screaming at 'em."
The scene also provides a callback to Shannon's Oscar-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road, where he plays a mentally disturbed man whose insistence on truth-telling shakes up his buttoned-down 1950s dinner companions. But in Take Shelter, which reunites him with Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols, the stakes are far higher. Curtis is having visions of the end of the world - or at least an environmental disaster that's almost Biblical in scale. And Shannon does an amazing job of conveying the character's escalating terror through his physicality; there's one moment where I swear he acts with the back of his neck.
"You kinda have to use your body," he says, "because Jeff doesn't like to over-articulate things with dialogue. I mean, both the characters I've played for him - Son Hayes in Shotgun and Curtis in this - don't really say anything unless they have to, and usually the thing that's foremost on their mind they're not talking about at all. They have secrets, you know?"
For all of its portent and tension, Take Shelter is ultimately an intimate study of one man's fear of losing control. Shannon says its outsized terrors come from a very real place.
"When Jeff wrote the script, he was starting a family with his wife, and the basic premise just occurred to him: everything you love in your life will just eventually be taken away from you, until you're ultimately taken away from yourself, And how do you not become overwhelmed by that?"
Shannon's next project, Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man Of Steel, offers the actor a different set of challenges. As the villainous General Zod, he'll be letting loose against CG effects and green-screen rather than rooms full of people.
"You do a shot," he says, "and then you have to do so many others - you have to do a plate shot where it's an empty frame, and then you have to do a shot where there's these, like, metal orbs, and then you have to do a shot where there's this weird-looking cube made out of orange straws. And you sit there and think, ‘How does this all come [together]?'
"But, ah, they know better than I do."