Every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars.The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Persona, Breathless, Hoop Dreams, King Kong, Caddyshack — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: Take Shelter, a glimpse at paranoia in heartland America centered on a likable family man named Curtis (Michael Shannon) who starts going crazy after he dreams that the end of the world is nigh. Of course, his subsequent efforts to protect his wife and daughter from this impending apocalypse are more likely to do them harm than keep them safe, and all that Shakespearean causality stuff. Do you even need to ask who plays his wife? Jessica Chastain, star of six movies in 2011 and the most likely contender to succeed Jude Law when Chris Rock invariably asks, “Who is (insert actor here), and why was he/she in every movie I saw last year?”
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: At first glance, it seems pretty obvious why Take Shelter was overlooked. This was a true independent film, one made with two relatively low-wattage stars on a $5 million budget, that needed a Sundance showing to find a distributor. Even after Sony Pictures Classics picked it up, and it received rhapsodic reviews, the widest release Take Shelter got was 91 theaters. A far cry from films like Juno or Slumdog Millionaire that really weren’t Little Movies That Could, but rather Low Budgeted Films with a Massive Studio Marketing Team Behind Them To Make Everyone Think They’re “Little Movies That Could.” Yet then we’re confronted with the example of Winter’s Bone, which still snagged a Best Picture nod (among three other nominations) despite its $2 million budget, complete lack of star power, and release in only 141 theaters. So what gives?
I think the difference is a question of ideology. Take Shelter begins after the end of most classical Hollywood stories, with the guy having gotten the girl, a good job, and a pretty comfortable family life. Director Jeff Nichols seems to be asking, “He has a good life, sure, but can he keep it?” By “good life,” I don’t mean that Michael Shannon’s Curtis has a Porsche and a Malibu beach house. He and his family are decidedly working class, living in conservative, rural southern Ohio. But his way of life is far from the poverty of the Ozark swamp-dwellers in Winter’s Bone, who were pretty much a rogues gallery of deadbeat dads, meth dealers, and gun-wielding lunatics. (Message: poor people are scary!) In fact, the Oscars typically like to nominate films that are about the very wealthy (this year, The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris) or the very poor (Hugo, War Horse), or some combination of the two where the class dynamic generates much of the conflict (The Help). So, yeah, Curtis and his wife Samantha are most definitely red staters, but they’re not poor, they’re not racist, they’re not Tea Partiers, they don’t have a secret meth lab, and I’m not certain how easily that fits into Left Coast perceptions of rural America. (Interesting to see how Academy voters would honor Chastain’s breathy über-Southern Belle in The Help over her decidedly unstereotypical mom in Take Shelter.)
No question about it: Curtis has a decent life. But then he begins traveling down a slippery slope of paranoia, thinking that these dreams he’s having mean the world is going to end, and he must bankrupt himself to expand his storm shelter in case his family needs to hide in there while the apocalypse rages around them. Oh, and he’ll use a backhoe without permission from his construction job for his project, which’ll get him fired. And he’ll spend his days brainstorming what kind of non-perishables he should stock up on, as his wife starts thinking that he’s lost his mind. Even Curtis knows something isn’t right—he’s lost his job and gotten his family deep in debt pursuing his obsession—so he takes himself to a psychiatrist. But despite knowing that he’s teetering on the edge of insanity, he still pursues his survivalist obsession with undoubtedly Glenn Beck-approved glee. Sure, he doesn’t ultimately end up coming after his family with an ax, screaming “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” But when he refuses to let Samantha and his daughter out of the shelter following a tornado watch because he’s convinced that the storm is still raging, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it’s one of the most terrifying things you’re likely to behold in any recent film. It’s terrifying because Shannon plays it with such subtlety, unlike the miles-over-the-top mania of Oscar-feted performances from the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old), and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight). Which is probably why he wasn’t nominated.