Moody and portentous, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter stars the actor who may be our most readily accessible force of darkness at this point in cinematic history: Michael Shannon.
Alternately heavy-lidded and wide-eyed, Shannon has the coiled potential of a venomous snake. In Take Shelter, that vibe is that much more frightening because he's playing a happily married family man for whom things start to go very wrong.
He is Curtis, who works for a contractor drilling for who knows what in a small town in Ohio. He's married to Samantha (the ever-present Jessica Chastain) and has a hearing-impaired daughter who looks to be about 3, for whom he and his wife are trying to get cochlear implants, thanks to his health insurance.
But Curtis is having trouble staying focused. He's started having these dreams - nightmares, really, about massive tornadoes preceded by a cloudburst that rains down what looks like motor oil. In some of these, he's with his daughter, just as they're both suddenly threatened by faceless strangers.
Curtis wakes up gasping from these dreams, at first soaked in sweat, then in urine, having unleashed his bladder. In one dream, his dog suddenly attacks him, clamping down on his arm - and after Curtis awakes his arm is in pain all day. He begins to feel threatened by the seemingly friendly pet, going so far as to build an outdoor pen for it.
Curtis begins to believe he's having visions about an impeding apocalypse and tries to make plans to survive it. He takes a home equity loan and buys a cargo container, then buries it in his backyard, turning it into a fully functioning disaster shelter. But, in the process of trying to protect himself against what he is convinced is certain doom, he begins to jeopardize his actual life: his job, his friendships, his family.
Eventually, we get a hint of what might be happening: He visits his mother (Kathy Baker) in the home where she's a resident. She's quiet and vague, until he starts asking her about her past. She suffers, it turns out, from paranoid-schizophrenia, which had its onset when she was about his age. But while he is seeing a counselor, he's not ready to admit that he may a victim of the same syndrome.
Is he? Or is he truly tapped in to some sort of vision of the future? Nichols does a terrific job of keeping the audience guessing, toggling back and forth between Curtis' life and his dreams without giving away too much too soon. His principal weapons are his actors, who play this all with a natural quality that makes the sudden shocks of awakening from one of Curtis' dreams that much more effective.
That's especially true of Shannon. He's played a variety of intense, explosive characters, including Treasury agent Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire. His imposing head, his scary eyes - and that high, slightly reedy voice that can suddenly turn into a foghorn of rage: Shannon has a variety of tools and knows how to unleash them to greatest effect. He's scariest when he's the quietest, though he's no picnic when he explodes, either.
Chastain holds her own against the IED that constitutes Shannon's thoughtful performance. She's patient and caring, but also increasingly angry at being left out of the loop. She's a wife who needs information - and he's keeping her in the dark, even as he seems ready to torpedo their future. Chastain brings surprising strength to the role - and a moment when she slaps him stands as one of the film's most shocking.
Take Shelter is unnerving, even as it takes its time getting to the point. Nichols creates a sense of dread that's like a canvas, on which Shannon paints a portrait of paranoia and fear with great skill.
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