By Gary Murray
Starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Running time 120 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Dollar
Trying to cinematically show mental illness is a tricky proposal. The presentation can go either too flippant or to maudlin while never addressing the basal concerns. It is a fine line that very few have attempted successfully. The latest to go down this path is the new Jeff Nichols film Higher Ground.
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a regular working stiff in a small town in Ohio. He has a loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a six year-old deaf daughter. As the movie opens, dark storm clouds fill the sky and rain the thickness and consistency of motor oil land on his shirt. He is not sure exactly what is going on with the weather.
Very soon he begins to have some bad dreams about a great storm coming. It is the kind of a storm that threatens to destroy everything, including his child. Reality begins to blur in his mind and he decides to build an expanded underground shelter, using machinery from work. He also goes to his doctor to get some sleeping pills. The doctor cryptically asks him about his mother. We find that Mom in a mental institution for schizophrenia. Curtis begins to wonder if his visions are some future event or the onset of the mental disease.
The story of Higher Ground is of Curtis’ downward spiral into madness or his seeing vision of something bad happening that may just come true. It is a murky idea that floats upon the rain of Higher Ground.
Michael Shannon delivers on all eight cylinders with his role of Curtis LaForche. He carries this sadness in his eyes that just generates sympathy. There is this inner struggle that he projects with every manner in his actor toolbox. Weaving between sanity and something else has a magical quality.
Jessica Chastain is once again great in a not so great movie. Her Samantha is a put upon woman, not knowing how to deal with all the curves thrown at her. This mid-Western backbone is tested once and again, with a child and a husband both in need. If anyone deserved the retired award at the Golden Globes for Best Star of the Year, it is this woman.
Jeff Nichols is the auteur of the work being both the writer and director. This is his film and he does some interesting work with his cast, getting the best from them. It is that the film is muddled in the overall presentation. At times it feels like a bad horror flick. It is all over the place in terms of what kind of a movie it wants to be.
The special effects are subtle yet impressive. The storm effects have a realistic feel while the fleeing birds storm with Hitchcock intensity. In a world where special effects shots are a major box office draw, it was comforting to see them used to drive the story and not be the story.
The film reminded of Bug, a weird art house flick from 2006. Michael Shannon stars in both and it runs down the same mental illness path. This one has a much more perplexed ending, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks on what is sanity.