Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ second feature is an elegant psychological thriller, or, an intimate portrait of a regular guy having an impending apocalypse.
Accordingly, Take Shelter has an atmosphere of funnel clouds and thunderclaps, and the right actor to channel them: Michael Shannon, force of nature. An Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road, and also for this if there’s any justice, Shannon makes absorbing an ominous national mood seem like a humbly accepted calling.
Here Shannon plays Curtis, a drilling company crew chief in suburban Ohio, who has a lovely wife, Sam (Jessica Chastain), and a young hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). He also has a family history of mental illness—his paranoid schizophrenic mother abruptly checked out of parenting at about the age Curtis is now—and a recent onset of very disturbing dreams. In one, it rains motor oil and the family dog attacks him. In another, it rains even more as faceless neighbors break into his car to snatch Hannah away from him. Curtis is a simple man, but self-aware enough to worry. It can’t comfort him much to suppose that as an alternative to insanity, his dread might actually be prophecy.
Poignantly, he becomes preoccupied with enlarging the backyard storm shelter. When not enduring his gut-wrenching, cold-sweating, bed-wetting dreams, Curtis passes listless nights in the shelter reading a library book about mental illness by kerosene lamplight. Not surprisingly, Sam worries, too. In more ways than one, they really can’t afford this.
One of Nichols’ ideas, beautifully articulated by the cast, is that at this small moment in American history, even the most mundane domesticity is beautiful and fragile. The fact of Hannah’s hearing impairment isn’t some ploy for cheap sympathy or suspense. It’s a gauge of anxiety about managing the extra effort and money her parents will need in order to take care of her, not to mention managing their own thwarted parental expectations. And it’s a chance for Curtis and Sam to reveal their individual and mutual physicality, in differing fluencies with sign language.
Curtis obviously is seeing signs of something. And Nichols has a great knack for isolating the man while also building audience identification with him. At one subtly crucial juncture, Curtis gets out of his car to gape at a mesmeric lightning storm. “Is anyone seeing this?” he has to ask. Yes: He is, and we are.
Nichols and Shannon also necessarily find variations on the standard movie business of waking suddenly from a horrible dream. Part of the point is that the dreams keep coming back, a maddening and depleting repetition. What’s more, as Curtis says, “It’s hard to explain, because it’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling.” Shannon’s delivery of these straightforward lines is as zigzaggy and electric as that lightning. Stammering, half-whispering, maybe almost about to laugh or sob, he conveys Curtis’ crumbling self-perception with riveting authority.
Chastain similarly vitalizes what might otherwise be a too-basic sketch of strained wifely devotion. It’s hard to even identify what she does that’s so good, so true. But it seems telling that this is the second film this year, after Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, to situate Chastain as one of many attention-demanders among strange rhapsodies of swirling bird flocks; her being type-cast as the grounding element in a sublime cosmic vortex must result from doing something right.
With its less-is-more immersive manner, Take Shelter feels like a good short story. Its many great little details seem so commonplace that they become somehow supercharged. The title, for instance, might seem too obvious, but look at it long enough and watch how it outlasts obviousness to take a turn for the strange and subtle. Nichols also gets wonderful work from supporting actors, including Shea Whigham as Curtis’ co-worker pal, Kathy Baker as his mother and Ray McKinnon as his half-estranged brother. And then there’s a collusion of subtle hauntedness between cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Parke Gregg and composer David Wingo.
Take Shelter captures the weird thrill of sensing a coming storm, when the air tastes different and your hair stands up. But what sort of storm is it? All that matters is Curtis knowing it’s real. Early on, we see him gnawing on his lower lip, as if trying to keep some awful testimony from slipping out. Eventually it bursts out. But that’s not how the movie ends. How it ends is even stranger and more terrifying.