There were plenty of horror movies at Fantastic Fest 2011, stories of ghosts and aliens and human centipedes. But far and away the scariest film of the festival was one that hit much closer to home, with no monsters at all save the ones inside the dark corners of our own minds. It’s called “Take Shelter,” and it’s not just one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in quite a while, it’s also one of the best.
The film is literally nightmarish. Soon-to-be Oscar nominee Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (“The Tree of Life”‘s Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter. He is a good man with a good life until a bad night’s sleep brings him a terrifying vision. In it, he sees an oncoming storm of immense proportions. It’s pouring weird, brown, oily rain. The next night, the dream returns and intensifies; the night after that, it happens again.
Curtis becomes convinced these dreams are a real warning sign of something terrible coming. Maybe a storm really is headed his way. Or maybe the dreams portend something else. At around the same age Curtis is now, his mother suffered a mental breakdown. Is he headed for one of his own? Ever the pragmatist, Curtis begins to prepare for the worst on two fronts: since all his dreams revolve around awful storms, he builds out the antiquated storm shelter in his backyard. And since his mother’s illness could be hereditary, he seeks psychiatric counseling. The one thing he doesn’t do, at least at first, is tell Samantha about either.
What follows is a haunting and moving illustration of President Franklin Roosevelt’s old adage that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as Curtis’ anxiety about an uncertain future quickly proves just as destructive to his life and his marriage as any hurricane could be. If you’ve never suffered from a panic attack, and want to know what it feels like, watch “Take Shelter.” This movie is a panic attack in cinematic form. Because Curtis’ nightmares are so vividly real, it’s not always immediately apparent whether you’re watching dream or reality. And when they happen, the dreams are so truly unsettling that you watch the movie the way Curtis lives his life: constantly in dread of their return. Even in seemingly calm scenes, your pulse quickens and your palms sweat. This movie played me like a fiddle. A quivering, covering-my-eyes-because-the-movie’s-too-scary baby-shaped fiddle.
Michael Shannon, quickly becoming his generation’s Christopher Walken — makes strange and unpredictable career movies, shines in smart, uncommercial independents, enlivens crummy mainstream projects with wild performances — is absolutely perfect as Curtis. He’s restrained when he needs to be and full-on crazysauce when the scene demands. Chastain, though, might arguably have the tougher role. She inarguably has the less showy role, since she has to react to a man who is incredibly guarded about his emotions. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the part’s limitations she’s better here than she was in “The Tree of Life,” particularly as she watches Curtis’ sanity slip further and further away. By the time the family is hunkered down in that storm shelter, she’s stealing scene after scene from Michael Shannon. That’s no easy task.
But then nothing is easy about “Take Shelter,” which was written and directed by Jeff Nichols. I’ve never met the man, but watching this nakedly personal film, I feel like I know exactly who he is. Like Nichols — and like Curtis — I’m a man in my thirties with a young family. I’m lucky enough not to come from a family with a history of mental illness, but I do know what it’s like to freak out about the future, to worry that global warming is going to kill us all, or to feel like there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do about it. I might be a little nuts myself — don’t think the thought hasn’t crossed my mind — but if I am, I don’t think I’m alone. I think Nichols has tapped into something much more powerful out in the cultural zeitgeist.
Some movies hit us on an emotional level. Others stimulate us intellectually. The best movies do both, and that’s what “Take Shelter” does. It speaks to anxieties that a lot of us feel about our lives and the world at large without resorting to cheap horror movie tactics. Moments terrified me until I was gripping my armrests, and other moments moved me to tears (the ending is perfect too). Maybe the movie was blessed by good timing, opening a few weeks after Hurricane Irene became the first storm to blow through the New York City area in years. Or maybe Nichols is a good enough — and prescient enough — filmmaker to be the first guy to see the writing on the wall and make a movie about it.