Finding shelter in the comfort and care of Jessica Chastain
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
It is time to take Jessica Chastain seriously. Forget the offensive she has launched on theaters in 2011 – The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, Wilde Salome and Texas Killing Fields, the final three titles have been relegated to impending status for regional viewers, although I was able to catch Coriolanus and Take Shelter during the Toronto International Film Festival. The point of the list though is to highlight the obvious. Chastain is everywhere. She could even be the author of this review; a dubious assumption only because appearing behind the pen would seem to run counter to her efforts and the very ubiquity of her persona. She is a thing, a force, a creature to be watched, witnessed and admired.
Chastain is the second coming of an order of actresses, in the Cate Blanchett/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 (local) production Take Shelter, which has gathered in festival audiences and acclaim at Sundance 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’s more irrational actions.
For all of these elements to come together in a realistic and believable fashion, Nichols relies on the shelter of 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 nuanced subtlety that shifts the tone and tenor of each performance. Chastain is the rare performer, the one that 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.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.