Darkening clouds, vicious dogs and swarming blackbirds all serve as apocalyptic signs and wonders in Take Shelter, a superb psychological thriller written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Set in the lush rural plains of Ohio, the film journals an emotionally troubled summer of in the life of a laconic drilling crew manager named Curtis (Michael Shannon) who finds his grip on reality slowly slipping. For Curtis, the thunderheads that form in the late afternoon sky are not mere meteorological phenomena, but harbingers of a new and powerful malevolence; their golden slimy raindrops a dire warning to a distracted world.
As Curtis heads to work each morning in a rattling Chevy pickup, he must wipe the sleep from his eyes, for deep slumber has become impossible. Every night, he is visited by horrific dreams filled with terrifying scenarios, and these nightmares have begun to invade his waking life as well. But Curtis must bravely venture on, for depending on him are his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and special needs daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who has finally been approved for an expensive surgery that may restore her hearing. Curtis' breakdown could not happen at a worse time, as his daugther's future is dependent on his employer's insurance benefits. And as he trys mightily to emit a brave front, the pressure on his psyche builds to a dangerous tipping point.
Michael Shannon has always excelled at characters with dark personal issues - his extraordinary turn as a schizophrenic in Revolutionary Road allowed him to steal a movie from Kathy Bates, a first in cinema history - and here he fleshes out the heavily burdened Curtis through techniques that range from stark to subtle. Nichols is careful to dole out his story in measured, highly charged morsels, and our deepening acquaintance with Curtis grows in ways that feel organic and fresh, despite the film’s increasingly surreal atmosphere. Eventually, a full portrait of Curtis' past emerges, giving his hallucinations a new and deeply troubling consequence. When he seeks professional help, Shannon begins to lead a double life, withholding his tormented secrets from family and friends. But his ambitious effort to renovate an old storm cellar is both a manifestation of his fantasies and a cry for help, rendering his struggles too big to ignore.
Shannon's creepy, off balance effects are intensified by Nichols' superb evocation of the new middle America, a tense and insecure land where steady employment is the only barrier between penury and hope. Presented without a hint of condecension, Take Shelter's bucholic Buckeyes are defined by responsibilty to family and community. In an unforgettable scene, a Lion's Club supper serves as a climactic backdrop for Curtis' public humiliation as Chastain and Stewart close ranks around their beleagured breadwinner. Chastain adds another excelllent performance to her portfolio; her protective bear mother reminscent of her role in The Tree of Life, but this time her Earth Goddess mysticism is replaced by the strength of clarity and resolve. Her husband may be a deranged lunatic or an impassioned prophet, but neither possibility can alter her bounds of love.
Take Shelter is a film that skillfully combines the mundane with the metaphorical, and is not afraid to address unanswerable questions. The increasingly deadly weather that affects our planet serves as a staging area for one man's personal demons, yet the contrast in scale only enhances the lonliness of Curtis' journey and its chilling ramifications for all mankind. But the film's thematic tentacles extend far beyond the perils of howling winds. Take Shelter evokes the foreboding sense that civilization has entered its last days, pursueing its own destruction with a momentum that has become unstoppable. And the well intentioned efforts of one deeply flawed man - efforts that may cost him everything - ultimately amount to spit in the wind.