The leaves on a tree shake and shiver in the opening shot of “Take Shelter.” A man stands in his driveway and watches as storm clouds foam in the sky and the rain yields globs of brown oil. And then he wakes up. This will be the first, and tamest, of Curtis’s dreams of doom.
“Take Shelter” is part end-times allegory, part psychological thriller and full-on descent into madness. Michael Shannon, like a slow-turning screw, ever so gradually comes unhinged until the last half-hour, which is one hallucinatory freak-out.
Curtis (Shannon) is a husband and father, devoted to his family and comfortable in his modest life as a construction worker. They live in a plain ranch in rural Ohio, where his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) takes care of their six-year-old deaf daughter while Curtis pays the bills.. On the weekends, Samantha sells little handmade pillows at a flea market. The devil is in the hard-nosed details for director Jeff Nichols who imagines the ho-hum lives of his characters so authentically.
Curtis’s visions persist and evolve into nightmares. They leave lingering sensations in the daytime, like a painful impression on Curtis’s arm, before coming at him again at night. Much of the two-hour running time is devoted to framing the film’s supernatural moments in kitchen sink realism. But there are at least four such bat-shit wild moments involving crazed dogs, floating coffee tables, troubled wives and kitchen knives.
Like Roman Polanski in 1965’s “Repulsion,” director Nichols situates us head-on in the delusional psyche of its protagonist because he knows we are skeptical. But when we’re asked to align ourselves with madness, we too begin to lose our minds, to sympathize with Curtis and even see truth in his hallucinations.
When Michael Shannon isn’t self-flagellating on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” or nabbing a Tony nomination, he is onscreen, often playing ordinary, working class men able to see beyond the imperious picket fences that gild the fiction of middle American life (see his character in Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road”). Curtis is one such man, but his portentous anxieties only get pathologized by the community around him and, ostensibly, by the film itself. One such non-believer is Samantha. Jessica Chastain, the queen-of-ubiquity in cinema this year it seems, plays a boarded-up housewife with restrained fury and quiet desperation (yep, I said it).
But the storm. Ah, that sweet and terrible storm that Curtis can’t stop seeing. It’s a propulsive, malignant force with the potential to disrupt the order of family and community. The storm can be read as the encroaching “otherness” threatening to undermine to an otherwise self-contained, civilized society. Hitchcock’s “The Birds” comes to mind. No doubt an indie auteur in the making, Nichols invites limitless interpretations of his film, which is often so terrifying that we’re left scratching and shaking our heads all at once.
Skeptics like the Midwestern townsfolk in this movie will cling to the basest reading that Curtis, like his paranoid mother (played by Kathy Baker), is schizophrenic. For my money, that just has no flavor. Even better, he entirety of “Take Shelter” could be read as the first act of a disaster movie, the act that we rarely get to see in such a film where we are always, only, given the aftermath because the “before” is too unimaginable to constitute the “after.” But it’s what comes before the apocalypse that truly horrifies. While the film’s ending, likely to elicit the same uproar as that damn spinning top in “Inception,” feels like a bludgeon to the head, the journey there is a dark, dread-filled pleasure.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.