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An Austin director takes 'Shelter' at Sundance

Posted 2:46pm on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

There was a large Texas contingent on hand at the Eccles Center on Monday afternoon to cheer on Austin local hero Jeff Nichols’ whose new film Take Shelter was having its world premiere as part of the dramatic competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival. In the crowd I spotted the likes of Dallas filmmaker David Lowery (whose new short film Pioneer is also screening here), and Lone Star Film Festival artistic director Alec Jhanghiani. Sitting in the row behind me was the promising Austin director Amy Grappell, whose excellent short documentary Quadrangle played here and in Cannes last year. That's not even to mention what seemed like dozens of Nichols' cast, crew and friends.

If you’re not familiar with Nichols’, he made a dark, tense family drama called Shotgun Stories that was inexplicably passed over by Sundance in 2007, but which went on to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and garner stellar reviews. He caused a stir this year when it was announced, just days before the festival, that Sony Pictures Classics had preemptively purchased distribution rights to this new film.

I chatted with Nichols just before the premiere on Monday, and he seemed uncommonly relaxed for a director about to be thrust into the Sundance spotlight for the first time. With the “Will my movie sell?” anxiety out of the way, he was able to kick back and enjoy the ride. He told me that Sony Pictures Classics actually purchased the movie sight unseen. According to Nichols, executives there had read the script and admired Shotgun Stories -- and thus made an offer.

Nichols was particularly happy that a prestigious outlet like Sony Classics came aboard and would remain true to his off-kilter vision for the film.

"Another studio could take a trailer that makes this look like a horror movie," he told me, "and that’s not what it is."

So what is Take Shelter exactly? Well, tricky to describe without giving too much away. Michael Shannon, who was nominated for the Oscar for Revolutionary Road and who also appeared in Shotgun Stories, plays a 35-year-old husband and father of a deaf girl, who is suddenly plagued with violent, terrifying dreams about an impending storm. His only way to deal with what he believes to be a looming apocalypse is to build an enormous storm shelter in his yard.

Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) seems to want the movie to function as an allegory for the anxiety many feel about modern life, with war, global warming, health care and unemployment putting pressure on our lives. But Take Shelter is also supposed to work as a portrait of one man’s struggle with mental illness -- and I’m not quite sure Nichols succeeds in having his cake and eating it, too. (I found the cryptic ending particularly frustrating -- and based on the post-screening chatter on the shuttle bus, I wasn’t the only one.)

Yet there’s no mistaking Nichols’ talent: Much like Shotgun Stories, this is a tense, absorbing story that is rooted in the intimate details and stresses of everyday family life. And Shannon delivers a moving gloss on his Revolutionary Road part, the seemingly insane man who might very well be the sanest person in the room. Nichols told me that Sony Pictures Classics is eager to build a Best Actor campaign around the performer for the 2012 Oscars, which shouldn’t be too hard given the intensity and pathos of his work here.

No official word on when Take Shelter will hit theaters, but it most likely will be in the fall.

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