Writer-director Jeff Nichols brings an eerie sense of normalcy to this psychological thriller about a man who’s either descending into schizophrenia or having horrifying premonitions of coming disaster. Slow, unsettling and fastidiously choreographed, with a astonishing performance by Michael Shannon at its center, “Take Shelter” forces us to share the perspective of its tormented protagonist in a way few other films gave managed to do. That might not be an entirely pleasant experience, but it’s certainly an artistically impressive accomplishment.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio construction worker whose wife Samantha (the seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) adds to the family income by selling home-made items at the local flea market. The couple needs the extra cash for a medical procedure that will help their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).
But Curtis begins to experience strange, frightening visions—of gathering storm clouds, flocks of birds flying in strange formations, animals fleeing cataclysmic weather—that culminate in one involving a tornado that slams into their house. A visit to his mother (Kathy Bales) in a convalescent facility reveals that she’s long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, the symptoms of which first appeared when she was in her mid-thirties, the same age that Curtis is now.
Terrified by what’s happening to him, Curtis determines to refurnish and expand the long-abandoned tornado shelter in the back yard, a project that leads him to “borrow” heavy equipment from his employer. The project not only becomes an obsession but leads to his being fired, and losing the health insurance his wife was depending on for their daughter’s treatment. And it brings him to explode at a community dinner when he’s confronted by a co-worker whose pay was docked for helping him.
It wouldn’t be fair to Nichols’ canny script to reveal where the narrative goes from here. Nor would it be fair to Shannon, whose already extraordinary performance only deepens from this point. Suffice it to say that “Take Shelter” goes into territory that only a few American films like “The Rapture” and “Donnie Darko” have entered before. The allusive, sometimes cruelly ambiguous paths it takes lead to an enigmatic close that might remind you of “A Serious Man,” but casts a spell all its own.
The film’s hypnotic effect depends in great measure on Nichols’ control both as writer and director, of course, but it also shows the sensitivity of cinematographer Adam Stone and editor Parke Gregg, who capture the mood of small-town America beautifully while using composition and tempo to give it a perceptibly threatening aura, and the skill of David Wingo in fashioning a background score that adds to the uneasy atmosphere. Credit must also be given to the effects team led by Tim Hoffman and Chris Wells, who manage some truly unsettling visuals on a limited budget.
But despite their efforts the film still rests largely on Shannon, who draws so rich and textured a portrait of tormented soul that you can’t help but sympathize with him even when his actions seem frustratingly misguided. Chastain supports him with an equally subtle, detailed turn as his understandably concerned wife, and Bates contributes a wrenching cameo as his mother. The rest of the cast offer naturalistic performances that perfectly set off Shannon’s intensity.
“Take Shelter” is an engrossing, quietly unnerving film that’s one of the year’s best.