Take Shelter

 Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

Though creepy and well-paced, Jeff Nichol’s Take Shelter is hard to simplify exactly.

It’s a brilliantly executed psychological character study in which one man’s madness isn’t necessarily painted black-and-white, yet it works on a much larger scale as a working metaphor of many of the social, political, economic, and environmental anxieties plaguing our society today.

With Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichol’s re-teams with his Shotgun Stories star Michael Shannon in what is arguably one of the most haunting, unsettling, and gripping films of the year.

In the film, Shannon plays Curtis, a blue-collar family man in a small Ohio town who begins to have crippling, lucid nightmares depicting an apocalyptic storm and mysterious strangers trying to attack him and his family.

Curtis is a solid representation of the everyday workingman—a young, hardworking construction worker by day, loving and devoted family man by night—who wants nothing more than the best for his wife and young daughter.

In this instance, the best means both working towards an operation for his deaf daughter who’s due for a cochlear implant and saving some vacation money for him and his yearning wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain).

Thus it becomes that Nichols uses the metaphor of nightmarish visions of a destructive, apocalyptic storm to exude the anxieties and tensions that always seem to be building and building in strength.

In the beginning, Curtis tries shrugs off the nightmares and go about his daily routine. While each one leaves him visibly shaken and somewhat disturbed for days on end, he becomes less worried about what these nightmares represent than he does about they might suggest about his psychological health.

It’s soon revealed that Curtis has a family history of psychological problems—his mother was sent away to a mental ward around the age he is now for developing paranoid schizophrenia. Still, while the nightmares Curtis suffers from seem to suggest a certain, impending doom, he uses his better judgement and seeks help from a therapist to make sense of the potential disease.

However, as the nightmares continue only to become more vivid and more violent, Curtis begins to loose his grip on rationality. In one nightmare, he’s attacked by the family dog, and promptly reacts by sending his dog away. He dreams that his co-worker and best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) attacks him, and the next day requests that he be transferred to a different construction team.

He even flinches from a soft touch by his wife after a nightmare in which she tries to attack him. Eventually, his delusions affect him so deeply that he decides to take out a loan and “borrow” construction equipment from work to build a sophisticated storm shelter in his backyard. Consequently, he loses his job, the health insurance that’s supposed pay for his daughter’s operation, and to his friends and family, his sanity.

Over the years, Michael Shannon has established himself as an intense and magnificent character actor, who successfully masters every role that he’s presented with. Take Shelter is no exception. Furthermore, Jessica Chastain (whose become 2011’s ‘It Girl” for American Independent Cinema), is magnificent as the warm and understanding Samantha, who does everything she can to keep Curtis grounded. Both Shannon and Chastain are at the top of their game in Take Shelter, and I’d be hard pressed not to see these performances buzzed about during awards season.

Take Shelter is a genuinely frightening film, but it’s built up in such a delicate, sensitive pace that it compliments audience reaction. The characters and settings are such an accurate representation, which is why Curtis’s slow decay into insanity is so excruciating. What’s even more excruciating is how Nichols subtlety toys with ambiguity and the notion that Curtis may, in fact, not be crazy, and that his nightmares are indeed a vision of an impending doom.

While the film’s ambiguous, yet deeply satisfying ending leaves room for debate about Curtis’ sanity, what’s not ambiguous is the deep-rooted fear of a socio-polical mega-storm that obviously haunts Nichols and his brilliantly crafted cinematic metaphor.

Overall Grade: A-

Take Shelter opens today in select theaters, click here  for theaters and showtimes.