Count this as my biggest disappointment of the year. The preview was great. What a terrific idea, I thought, to develop an action movie around bike messengers in New York City. And then there’s the fact that it stars my secret boyfriend, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. How wrong could I be?

premium-rush-2Let me count the ways:

The premise is nonsensical and kind of racist. It’s populated with mysterious Chinese, incomprehensible money-exchange policies, and patronizing Orientalism to last a decade. (Joseph, darling, you went to Edward Said’s Columbia University. How could you?)

Showcases the geography of New York City streets only to get that geography all wrong, which is obvious to anyone who knows it. And hello, a lot of people know that geography. The worst is when he leaves Columbia University (at 116th St, we’re told explicitly) to head downtown, yet he then spends a lot of time dodging the bad guy underneath an elevated train trestle, French Connection style (which is uptown starting at 125th St). Director David Koepp has said he wanted to make this a “map movie, where you see this guy who has to get from here to here” — well, criminey.

Speaking of getting NYC wrong, I’ve never seen the city with so little traffic and so few red lights. Guess what time of day, precisely, the film takes place? 5:30pm to 7pm. [Bangs head against wall.]

Total waste of Michael Shannon as the bad guy. Yes, he is tall a crazy-mean looking. Yet the backstory is soooo boring.

Really? The helpless girl motif? Don’t get me started.

Joseph Gordon Levitt

Now, I still like this premise. I liked some of the action scenes. And oh, that Gordon Levitt — he sometimes puffs out his chest as if to make himself seem larger, but his real magic consists in moving with the grace of Gene Kelly. If only he’d been enough to save this stupid script.

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In French, fourche means fork — so when I tell you right off that Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) isn’t sure whether his nightmares and hallucinations are prophetic visions or symptoms of madness, you too might think immediately that his slightly Americanized name indicates that this film is essentially an “is he or isn’t he?” story. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is. This movie is scary as shit, as tight as a drum, and is the best portrayal of modern manliness I’ve seen since Fight Club (1999).

Other movies are scary because they portray terrifying scenes or build suspense till it’s nearly unbearable. This movie scares you because this is about your fears:

that your life, like Curtis’s, is a house of cards.

The job keeps food on the table and the mortgage paid. But that small list of accomplishments — like, you paid off the car — all fly out the window if you lose the job.

What will you do for health insurance, especially now that you’ve finally gotten approval from the insurance company to pay for your deaf daughter’s cochlear implant operation?

What if you lose your job and your insurance because you’re losing your mind?

“You have a good life,” his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him early on. It’s just about the best compliment a man can give another man.

But a good life is still just a house of cards. And the nightmares might be that gust of wind to knock it down.

In his dreams, the storm clouds build. Those first drops of rain are viscous and discolored, like fresh motor oil.

This isn’t a regular storm. It’s massive. There’s a funnel cloud.

These aren’t regular dreams. Sometimes in the dreams he gets hurt, and the pain lingers all day.

Of course he doesn’t tell anyone. He does what a good man does: he says, “It’s fine,” and shuts up. He goes to the public library and checks out a book called Understanding Mental Illness, which he studies in secret. He tells his doctor he’d like to see a counselor.

He’s going to take care of this, and no one needs to worry.

He visits his mother, who’s been institutionalized and heavily medicated for schizophrenia for the past thirty years, since he was a kid. He wants to know if these dreams are somehow genetic.

When she asks if he’s all right, he tells her he’s fine.

Then he takes a look at that storm shelter in the back yard, and everything in his very soul tells him that this is the solution. He knows he needs a bigger space if all three of them are going to be down there. Dewart will help, and won’t ask.

He weighs the options and figures out how to pay for it. He borrows some pretty serious equipment from work. He chooses a day when Samantha takes Hannah with her to the craft fair.

Here’s what you notice after a while: as the dreams get worse, Curtis’s eyes seem to get bigger, wider, more haunted. His mouth gets smaller as he keeps trying to swallow all his fears and exert, through sheer force of will, some level of control.

He can barely open his mouth, because what will he say if he does? Talking will make it real.

Except that sometimes they’re not dreams but waking nightmares. Hallucinations, the book on mental illness calls them.

One night driving home he has to stop the car. Hannah and Sam are asleep in the back, but he gets out to watch that huge electrical storm. Even here in the flattest part of Ohio, this storm is crazy. “Is anybody else seeing this?” he asks, and looks around with surprise to find no one else there.

And with that question, we know he’s opened up a can of worms.

See this film — and on the big screen if you can, because those wide, flat Ohio landscapes must be seen on the big screen. See it because Michael Shannon inhabits this role like no other living actor could — just seeing his posture in his work shirt and a pair of jeans reminds you of every blue-collar man in your family, and it helps you understand them like you’ve never understood before. (Would it even be fair to compare him in this role to other performances this year? Is the Oscar locked up so early?) See it because the film is trying to tell us something about where we are. And it’s also telling us things I don’t quite understand. When you do, we’ll have a conversation about that ending.

Holy crap, people. Take Shelter.