Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a loving a husband and father who leads a modest but happy life in small town Ohio. He has a good construction job, and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) sews linens and pillowcases for extra money. Their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) is deaf, but Curtis's health insurance can pay for a cochlear implant that would allow her to hear. However, Curtis begins to have nightmares of a coming apocalypse and other horrors that bring on increasing paranoia and instability. He becomes obsessed with protecting his loved ones from harm, and begins sinking time and money into readying his backyard storm shelter for the worst, a decision that will have disastrous consequences for his family.
Cinematic descents into madness are always a lot of fun to watch, but few are as satisfying as "Take Shelter." Instead of a Jack Nicholson or a Nicholas Cage type, who often telegraph long in advance that they're going to transform into a raving lunatic and chew the scenery with gusto, Curtis is a very quiet, ordinary man. After the first few nightmares, he not only recognizes that he's losing control of himself, but takes every rational step to try and mitigate the damage. Curtis has a history of mental illness in the family, so he tries to consult a psychiatrist, but his resources are few and his means are limited. Everyone he knows is in a similar position, unable to offer much help. He tries to remove the sources of his anxiety, and redirect his energies to what he believes will be a positive, productive venture - the storm shelter. Unfortunately, he just ends up reinforcing his fears. So he remains a deeply sympathetic figure, even when his behavior starts to escalate, and his actions become more and more extreme.
Michael Shannon's excellent performance is key to this, much of it non-verbal, and much of it dealing with a morass of uneasy, shifting emotions just beneath his stoic exterior. In the first half of the film Curtis is very soft-spoken, but you can see the capacity for the big emotional moments in him, long before they erupt. It's his smaller reactions, his moments of doubt and confusion and disbelief, that are some of his best. However, when he finally does get to play those big cathartic scenes, they're pretty damn breathtaking. I'm not familiar with Shannon's other work, but after this role, I'd happily watch him in anything. Jessica Chastain also shines in another good supporting turn as his wife. She gets some nice scenes here, but I wanted to see more of her, which is true of pretty much every performance Chastain has given in every movie she's appeared in to date. Get this woman a leading role, Hollywood.
"Take Shelter" was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who takes a potentially schlocky genre premise and keeps the execution so simple and so well grounded, that it hits much closer to home than you might anticipate. I've heard the film called a thriller, but it doesn't really fit any of the usual genre categories. There's little action or violence, but there's always the possibility of it, as the tension steadily builds and builds. The familial and psychological drama is consistently engaging and it's easy to get invested in Curtis's woes. And while the scope of the story may be small, the storytelling sure isn't. The natural world is a constant presence here, especially the wide expanse of the midwestern sky, beautifully captured in Adam Stone's cinematography. When thunder sounds and the storm clouds gather over Curtis's head, they seem inescapable.
I did have a few issues with the direction that the story took, specifically the coda, but the film's ending may actually be the most interesting part of it, depending on your reading of thee events. I've already run across a couple of very thought-provoking interpretations. I don't want to get into spoilers here, but what initially bothered me was that the filmmakers seemed to be handing us a very obvious answer to the puzzle of Curtis's dreams. Except, maybe it's not. "Take Shelter" hints at a lot of different themes and ideas that allow the film to be interpreted in any number of ways - as religious parable, as family drama, or even as science-fiction.
So don't let the descriptions about apocalypses and disaster scenarios fool you. This isn't your average Hollywood action film, but rather something a little deeper, a little stranger, and much, much more rewarding one.