In the Water
Lexington-born boys George Clooney and Michael Shannon steal the holiday indie show
by Raj Ranade
The Oscar movie season is in a unique state of chaos this year, though it’s
nothing compared to the mayhem going on behind the scenes of the Oscar show itself (where producer Brett Ratner and host Eddie Murphy resigned after the former’s homophobic slurs during a press conference). This is the first time in years that a dominant Best Picture front-runner has not quickly emerged, like last year’s *The King’s Speech.* Instead, buzz is accruing around films that would be unlikely contenders in other years, like Alexander Payne’s modest family fable The Descendants.
The Descendants takes place on the sun-drenched shores of Hawaii, with floral-patterned button-downs, swaying palms, and blithe ukulele-strumming aplenty. But all that cheerful sunlight is a cruel joke hanging over the characters in Payne’s latest, who are forced to confront a particularly gloomy type of grief (“Paradise,” informs George Clooney’s protagonist via voiceover, “can go **** itself”).
It’s painful enough for Hawaiian businessman Matt King (George Clooney) to face his wife’s entry into a permanent coma, but it’s excruciating when he learns about the affair she was having prior to her fateful boating accident. It places Matt in the opposite situation of past Payne protagonists, usually strait-laced men getting the chance to run amok (the depressed writer on a drunken holiday in Sideways, the teacher sabotaging smarmy students in Election). Matt is forced to restrain his private rage as he travels across the islands informing family and friends of the bad news and putting on the public mask of mourning.
This may sound dour, but in the hands of an irreverent satirist like Payne, these dark moods are elegantly mixed with frequent shocks of humor – like when Clooney, sputtering with rage after the initial revelation, runs to a friend’s house without changing out of his sandals, resulting in one of cinema’s most furious waddles. That spiky mix of warmth and trauma continues as Clooney’s character reconnects with the daughters he neglected while on business travel – a foul-mouthed ten-year-old (Amara Miller) and a rebellious 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley) who insists on dragging along an obnoxious stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause, in a broad comedic role that’s the film’s worst element).
The Descendants isn’t particularly surprising or novel in its insights into grief or family – I’ll give you one guess to figure out the outcome of a subplot where Clooney has to decide whether to sell centuries-old family land to greedy real-estate developers or preserve it for posterity. But Clooney’s understated performance is more than enough to make the film worth your time – Clooney drops any trace of movie star vanity to portray a disheveled, decent man trying to reestablish a rapport with his daughters, his emotions, and the world as a whole. It’s unfortunate that more of the sharp satirical edge that Payne’s films have had in the past isn’t here, but this is also the most heart that any of his films have ever shown.
The Lexington-born Clooney’s work can’t compare to another performance by another Kentucky native, however – Lexington’s own Oscar-nominated Henry Clay-alum Michael Shannon gives a career-best performance in the stunning Take Shelter. Shelter is the second film from director Jeff Nichols, whose debut film Shotgun Stories (also starring Shannon) made waves at film festivals on a shoestring budget. Nichols is a guy who knows how to do a lot with a little, and in Take Shelter he makes prosaic elements – an ordinary Ohio blue-collar family, recurring rainstorms, a tornado shelter – thrum with an intense dread, conjuring atmosphere out of minimalist elements in the same way the chimes in the film’s haunting score do.
In Shelter, Shannon’s Curtis is a family man beset by recurring visions ripped from horror movies – violent maelstroms of oil-colored rain and lightning, shadowy figures bent on harming his family, occasional lapses in the laws of physics. These supernatural visions of apocalypse start to pile up just as more everyday apocalypses start to threaten Curtis and his wife (an excellent Jessica Chastain), like medical bills for their deaf daughter or the specter of unemployment. And these commonplace challenges are only aggravated as Curtis begins preparing for the catastrophe he foresees, stocking up on gas masks and taking out loans to build up his underground tornado shelter.
Shannon has distinguished himself as one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for on-screen craziness in his past roles, but what’s so moving about his performance here isn’t the moments of insanity (though when they arrive, they are riveting) but the quiet dignity he displays in trying to hold himself together for his family. Nichols is extraordinarily perceptive in showing how the film’s subspecies of taciturn Midwestern male communicates, and in Shannon’s quiet performance, every interaction with a co-worker friend (Shea Whigham) or his wife seems to suggest chapters of history beyond the film’s scope.
That scope contains themes far grander than the modest nature of the story might suggest. Curtis’ hallucinations may or may not be representations of his own mental illness, but they’re also potent symbols of the kind of omnipresent unease that is a part of modern American society, whether it’s due to political/media-based fear-mongering or to very real concerns of economic and societal collapse. The central dilemma that Nichols explores here is nothing less than how we should live in times like these, when barricading yourself in a tornado shelter is clearly untenable, but the unthinkable seems more and more possible every day. The film’s searing climactic scene in a locked cellar provides one answer – and I’ll be surprised if we see a more powerful scene in American film this year.
More Films to Look Out For:
The Artist – Don’t let the fact that this is a silent, black-and-white film scare you away! This story about a silent movie star dealing with the rise of the talkies is one of the year’s biggest crowd-pleasers.
A Dangerous Method – Genre-thriller director David Cronenberg takes on a traditional biopic in this story of the friendship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, with appropriately kinky results and excellent performances from Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, and Keira Knightley.
Margin Call – Director J.C. Chandor dramatizes behind-the-scenes dealings at a Goldman-Sachs-style investment firm preceding the 2008 market crash, while also giving Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore the chance to revive their careers with knockout performances.
Melancholia – European provocateur Lars Von Trier directs an intimate story about the end of human existence, depicting one family’s response as another planet travels on a collision course with Earth in this gorgeous, haunting film.
Carnage – Roman Polanski makes an intensely claustrophobic and caustic comedy from Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play *The God of Carnage* with the considerable talents of Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly. [The play is now onstage at Lexington's Downtown Arts Center.]
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