Curtis (Michael Shannon), the central figure of Jeff Nichols’ powerful, enigmatic drama “Take Shelter,” is living in the grip of overpowering dread. An Ohio man with a wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a little girl, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who’s deaf, a construction job and a house on the edge of a field, Curtis is plagued with dreams of apocalypse, of swarming black birds, giant storms rolling in from the skyline, thunder and lightning, a thick rain that brings madness to anyone caught out in it. These visions are so powerful he can’t shake them when awake — after one in which his frenzied dog bites his arm, he can’t bring himself to trust the animal anymore in the light of day, and ends up banishing him to a fenced in area in the backyard.
Curtis has a family history of schizophrenia, but “Take Shelter” leaves it ambiguous as to how much of his disintegration is due to mental illness and how much is just due to a larger unease and instability that seems symptomatic of time in which we all live. Curtis’ life is neither radically comfortable nor precarious, but it’s beset on all sides by possible threats and hazards. There’s Hannah’s condition, which appears to be a relatively recent development, and the possibility on the horizon of her getting a cochlear implant, but there’s also the mortgage, the job, their health insurance, their savings, their bank loan. The obvious fragility of the life Curtis and his family have carved out for themselves seems to be wearing away at him and manifesting in these overblown, frightening hallucinations, which aren’t distinguished in the way that they’re shot from reality except in the tension and anxiety with which they unfold.
Shannon is a maestro when it comes to playing mentally unbalanced characters, and Curtis offers him an embarrassment of riches in his psychological and physical breakdown, floundering under the weight of his growing distress, his desire to hide his troubles from his wife and his helpless fixation on the storm cellar behind their house, which he begins to build out as a kind of survivalist fallout shelter, with food, beds and ventilation. He understands that he looks unwell to everyone around him, but is also utterly convinced of the impending destruction of the world, and given that we’re partial to his visions, to the beautifully, disturbingly realized storms on the horizon, we understand his distress like no one else. “Take Shelter” builds to potent climax that suggests it’s impossible to live normally without letting go of these types of misgivings, but also acknowledges how irresistible they are. These days, who doesn’t feel, and fear, a storm building on the horizon?
“Take Shelter” will be released by Sony Classics later this year.