There’s a storm coming, roiling and iron-grey on the vast Midwest plains. Curtis (Michael Shannon) sees it, even if no one else does. He feels raindrops, rubs them between his fingers. It looks almost like motor oil. This is a vision, but Curtis is maybe not so sure about that. The sky clears, as if by magic, and he moves on with his day.
By the end of Take Shelter, an intense and gripping new film by Jeff Nichols, Curtis will have had more visions, each more harrowing than the last: strange bird formations, levitating furniture, a horrific carjacking. His growing instability will test the faith of his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigam). He will jeopardize treatment for his hearing-impaired daughter. And his loyal dog will fare no better.
What’s causing these increasingly disturbing nightmares? Certainly, it could be schizophrenia, which runs in Curtis’s family. Convinced he’s going mad, he seeks the help of a psychiatrist and dutifully takes the medication prescribed. But the dreams continue. He visits his mother (Kathy Baker) in a home to ask her how her illness started, and she responds with a brief but chilling explanation. By accident, Curtis discovers a dilapidated storm shelter in his backyard, and obsessively sets out to fortify it, even taking out a bank loan to pay for supplies without telling his wife. The way Chastain responds to this news, as well as the bombshell that Curtis was fired for using company equipment to dig his shelter, proves why she’s currently one of film’s most in-demand actors. Samantha is as supportive as she can be, but when Curtis loses the health benefits meant to pay for his daughter’s hearing implant, she unleashes on him ferociously. And Curtis, himself, convinced that the town thinks he’s crazy for his singular focus on the shelter, snaps at a Lion’s Club dinner, destroying anything not bolted to the floor.
This is a remarkably lean film that moves through its story arc with constant urgency. There is no excess. It plays with elements of suspense, human drama, and even horror. I’ve only just hinted at what the film is about, and what it contains, because one of the pleasures of Take Shelter is watching it unfold. Is Curtis truly schizophrenic, or are the dreams of storms and disaster real? I’m not saying the film doesn’t give answers, but any resolution is incidental: here is a film about a man wound so tight, so prone to agonizing anxiety, that he’s willing to alienate himself from life as if he were on autopilot.
About Michael Shannon’s career, I’m woefully uneducated. I’m told this is because I have not seen him in The Runaways or Bug or Revolutionary Road, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. All have been promptly added to my Netflix queue. Based solely on his performance in Take Shelter, it is clear that he is a gifted actor. I look forward to more of his work.
Recommendation: The Midwest landscape and impending storms are practically second characters. If you don’t want to minimize the extraordinary cinematography, be sure to see the film in high-def.