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“Take Shelter,” reviewed

“Take Shelter,” reviewed (photo)

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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.

“Take Shelter” is now playing in limited release. If you see it, we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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