Part family drama, part psychological thriller, "Take Shelter" manages to succeed as an otherworldly blend of "Field of Dreams" and Noah's Ark. Following up his 2007 festival hit "Shotgun Stories," director Jeff Nichols re-teams with Michael Shannon for the absorbing saga of a mentally disturbed husband and father inexplicably driven to build a tornado shelter in his backyard. As with "Shotgun Stories," Nichols assembles a tense portrait of blue-collar life, while deepening his thematic interests and working on a bigger scale. Burrowing into the subconscious of a damaged man, he delivers a modern American epic with extraordinary restraint.
Nichols also manages to use the apocalyptic CGI imagery associated with the Hollywood disaster genre in service of something far more profound. "Take Shelter" opens with Shannon, as the construction worker Curtis, gazing off into the distance as a vast storm approaches. Oil rains from the sky—and then he wakes up. The sequence marks the first of several obscure dreams and visions tormenting Curtis with increasing intensity. Created with anything but the most convincing effects in the business, the transparency of Curtis's hallucinations evoke the uneasy tension between his inner turmoil and an otherwise settled existence.
Raising a deaf daughter with his supportive wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), Curtis spends his off-hours drinking with friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), an admirer of Curtis's evident contentment. "You've got a good life," he tells his pal. "That's the best compliment you can give a man." The ensuing conflicts test the fragility of that statement, as Curtis' neatly calibrated world runs into a wall.
Meanwhile, his dreams grow increasingly traumatic. An imagined dog attack ends when he wakes up with a sore arm; a more vivid nightmare has him protecting his daughter from sudden weightlessness that strikes their home. Awake, he sees an ominous flocks of birds assembling in the sky. Eventually, he pinpoints a likely culprit for the apparent hallucinations: Paranoid schizophrenia, an affliction that also plagues his mother and contributed to his parents' divorce. Driven to keep his debilitating condition a secret, Curtis attempts to get ahold of himself without allowing his wife to catch on. In his less sober moments, he fears for the end of the end of everything in global catastrophe.
Nichols allows the movie to inhabit his protagonist's awareness so well that he maintains the possibility of a prophetic dimension to Curtis's dreams without pushing the movie into sci-fi territory. Hardly the familiar sob story about the challenges of coping with a disease, "Take Shelter" develops into a larger conceptual project about the durability of convictions in the face of self-doubt. While his job and family structure become jeopardized, Curtis stubbornly continues building his backyard shelter, either fully convinced of its purpose or just hoping to calm his nerve.
Shannon has developed a penchant for playing unstable minds ever since his Oscar-nominated performance in "Revolutionary Road," and hence fits the demands of the Curtis role without overplaying his dementia. Chastain brings an equally compelling dimension to the story as her character struggles to understand Curtis's frustrations and fights to support him against the unseen threats lurking in his head.
Chastain's appearance in Terrence Malick's upcoming "Tree of Life" is not the only connection between Malick and "Take Shelter." Nichols' lyrical approach to representing Shannon's deteriorating life often feels like an ode to Malick's ethereal stye. But Nichols eventually steps beyond Malick terrain by lingering in a brilliant gray area between the real and imaginary. Whether literal or figurative, the eponymous command is wholly justified.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Purchased by Sony Pictures Classics ahead of Sundance, the movie will undoubtedly become an awards season contender based around Shannon's haunting performance, while helping Nichols advance his rising career.
criticWIRE grade: A