A hallucinatory thriller anchored by a deeply resonant sense of unease, “Take Shelter” finds writer-director Jeff Nichols honing, polishing and amply confirming the raw filmmaking talent he displayed in “Shotgun Stories.” Like that auspicious 2007 debut, this deliberately paced psychological drama builds an ever-tightening knot of tension around an excellent Michael Shannon, here playing a family man slowly driven mad by apocalyptic visions that could be paranoid, prophetic or both. Acquired by Sony Classics before its Sundance premiere, slow-burning “Shelter” will carve out a respectable arthouse niche, though favorable critical response could raise the ceiling.
In a brooding prologue that brings to mind any number of sci-fi disaster pictures, construction worker Curtis LaForche (Shannon) watches storm clouds gather in eerily beautiful formations outside the rural Ohio home where he lives with his beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their hearing-impaired young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). The inclement weather seems to trigger in Curtis a series of intensely disturbing dreams that linger long after he’s awakened, leaving him physically ill in a manner that recalls the inexplicable environmental maladies of Todd Haynes’ “Safe.” The most extreme of these nightmares involves a cyclone ripping the house from its foundations — an event that Curtis, for reasons unknown to him or the audience, believes will soon transpire.
Curtis privately consults a doctor but is hesitant to seek psychological treatment, and he responds testily when a concerned Samantha tries to find out what’s wrong. He eventually goes to visit his mother (Kathy Baker), who, it turns out, has a history of schizophrenia, but the possibility of inherited mental illness doesn’t entirely explain the disquieting sense of more sinister forces at work.
The early dream sequences, designed to sneak up on the audience, are a tad dispiriting in that they feel like routine horror-movie jolts. Nichols is indeed toying with genre, but primarily as a vessel for deeper, more suggestive undercurrents: Curtis may awaken every night in a cold sweat, but what’s more chilling is the way the dreams stay with him, leaving psychic imprints that bleed into the daylight hours. Before long, Curtis is building an enormous tornado shelter in their yard — a huge undertaking that angers Samantha and costs the family dearly.
As in “Shotgun Stories,” Nichols locates a compelling domestic drama within a small American town whose codes and customs are observed with rigorous attention to detail. Having amassed critical and commercial cachet, the director here avails himself of a larger budget and studio-caliber production values, including a lyrical score by David Wingo and an array of sophisticated visual effects (courtesy of producing company Hydraulx) to pull off the film’s forays into disaster-movie territory. Adam Stone’s widescreen cinematography is simply pristine, making poetic use of shadows and capturing the dolorous beauty of the film’s Midwestern landscape.
Skillfully tapping into a nameless but all-too-familiar sense of dread, of being powerless to hold danger at bay, “Take Shelter” emerges a study of troubled masculinity in a troubled world. Curtis’ refusal to share his fears with his wife is infuriating, his behavior often inscrutable; yet everything he does is motivated by an admirable determination to protect his family at any cost. Shannon’s tightly wound, gruff-yet-tender performance invites sympathy even as the character’s irrationality keeps the viewer off balance, building to an electrifying scene in which Curtis is pushed to his limits and lets the lid off his demons in public.
For all the film’s focus on Curtis, it never sidelines Samantha’s role in the drama, and Chastain, as a woman who chooses to respond to every setback with fierce compassion, makes wrenchingly clear why her husband is so intent on shielding her from harm. As storms brew outside the home and within, Nichols’ film distinguishes itself most impressively as a portrait of a marriage the viewer desperately wants to see prevail — right up to an ending that, if it seems a touch anticlimactic in its ambiguity, nonetheless sounds a note of quiet, tentative hope.