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 the absorption of an ominous national mood seem like a humbly accepted calling.
Here he 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 (Kathy Baker) 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, itself possibly a hellmouth, because that’s really all he knows how to do. 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 lovely and fragile. Narratively, the fact of Hannah’s deafness 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 showing signs of something. And Nichols has a great knack for isloating 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 litany. 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 zigazggy and electric as that lightning. Stammering, half-whispering, maybe almost about to laugh or sob, he conveys Curtis’ anguish 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. Being type-cast as the grounding element in a sublime cosmic vortex must result from doing something right.
With its less-is-more manner of immersiveness, “Take Shelter” feels sometimes 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 subtly strange. Nichols also gets wonderful work from supporting actors, including Shea Whigham and Ray McKinnon as Curtis’ co-worker pal and half-estranged brother, respectively. Meanwhile cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Parke Gregg and composer David Wingo collude to radiate finespun hauntedness.
“Take Shelter” captures the weird thrill of sensing a coming storm, when the air tastes odd 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 of his mouth. Eventually it bursts out. But that’s not how the movie ends. How it ends is even stranger and more terrifying.