The Last Picture Show (1971)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
September 30-October 6 at Film Forum
People knowing each other's business—it's the refrain of small-town stories, but in Take Shelter, it's hard to tell at first what Curtis's business is anyway. The laconic sand-mining worker, already lugging the crazy-guy baggage of performer Michael Shannon, begins exhibiting unusual symptoms: visions of CGI in the sky, howling fantods in his sleep, and a financially risky fixation on carving out a backyard bunker. In advance reviews, these have been spun into the mood music of dread and ordinary folks under siege, abetted by a screenplay that follows the vogue for scenes of loan whiplash in banks (and lines like "You take your eye off the ball in this economy..."). The new film from Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols ploughs a stultifying first hour of Shannon stubbornly banging his head against life (and flummoxing his wife, played by Jessica Chastain). But more compelling than the almost Pulse-like mystery Nichols foments is the experience of Curtis's suspected schizophrenia—both for its own sake and for the complicated way it affects a threatened masculinity and community trust.
Rather than a sequel to Bug, Shannon's performance of paranoia as it might play out in ordinary circumstances (with the attendant confusion of friends and family) has the potential to be heartbreaking. Nichols's movie also captures a strange split reality: even as Curtis seeks out counseling to head off what he suspects may be a breakdown, he still pursues his bunker plans (helplessly? insistently?) and a secrecy that damages his marriage—in other words, rationality and responsibility right alongside self-destructive behavior. Unfortunately, though Nichols is arguably also being subjectively faithful to Curtis's grandiosity, he ultimately opts to condition this portrait with intimations of doom, generic suspense instead of a sense of embattled dignity.
If Take Shelter foregrounds its besieged mood as being of the moment, The Last Picture Show was a lovingly fabricated fantasy of the 50s (on and off screen) that managed to feel cathartic and synthetic, very much the product of compulsively name-dropping wunderkind critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. High schoolers intersect with elders around the great-looking black-and-white Texas desolation and period detail, across subtly skipping times and not-so-secretly pursued desires—Timothy Bottoms still wears a mask of sheepishness and resignation, Cybill Shepherd is the perfect projection to drive Jeff Bridges's Duane to distraction, Hank Williams virtually replaces the sound of wind, and so on. But with every missed chance so meticulously mapped, are all their guilty pleasures really a guilty pleasure?