Ominous storm clouds loom large in the opening shot of Take Shelter, but when the rain begins to fall, Curtis (Michael Shannon), a father and husband living in small-town Ohio, notices the water is thick and orange, like motor oil. Later, while on the job at a sand-mining company, he sees huge flocks of panicked birds flying in odd formations, like people fleeing a burning building. He hears thunderclaps, loud as cannons, which no one else hears. Then the strange dreams begin: A tornado, a horrifying car crash, an attack from his dog.
At first, Curtis continues to act normally. His wife Samantha (The Tree of Life’s Jessica Chastain) and their 6-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf, don’t notice how rattled he is. No one does. “You’ve got a good life, Curtis,” his co-worker and friend Dewart (Shea Wigham) tells him. “That’s the biggest compliment a man can give.”
Eventually, though, Curtis becomes convinced the apocalypse is coming, and he can no longer keep his fears to himself. And piece by piece, his good life begins to fall apart just as he’s trying to protect it. Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his impressive indie debut Shotgun Stories, could be interpreted as an allegory for the anxiety that permeates modern-day society — the fear of foreclosures, unemployment, stock market crashes and the end of a means to provide for one’s family, all of which hover on the horizon, a constant threat to the lives we have made for ourselves.
But the movie doesn’t force any symbolism on you, nor does the story need any additional subtexts. Shannon (next to be seen as General Zod in the new Superman movie Man of Steel) is superb as an ordinary man who can’t decide whether his visions are omens or if he’s simply losing his mind. Everything he does — no matter how crazy — is for the sake of his wife and daughter, and Shannon allows you to feel the tempest inside Curtis, buffeted about by forces beyond his understanding but doing his best to maintain control. When Curtis finally erupts, Shannon’s anger is volcanic and frightening.
Chastain is just as good as Samantha, a woman trying her best to support the husband she loves but also capable of lashing out in anger when he keeps behaving in strange ways he won’t explain. Take Shelter depicts the day-to-day lives of the working class with precision and affection, and the movie contains some of the best dream sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie (Nichols excels at recreating the blend of the familiar and the uncanny so common in nightmares).
The film is also clear and exact about what’s happening to Curtis — no annoyingly unanswered questions here — and is capped by a beguiling final scene that brings the story to a perfect, graceful end. Take Shelter is paced slowly and deliberately, which is necessary to make believable whatever is tormenting Curtis. I’ve purposely kept from spelling out what the picture is really about, not to protect a plot twist but simply because the movie plays better that way. Just take Curtis at his word when he says “I’m afraid that something may be coming — something that’s not right.”
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Wigham, Kathy Baker.
Writer-director: Jeff Nichols.
Producers: Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.