We’ve heard the line “There’s a storm coming” before in film, but perhaps never with the same amount of deep, gutteral dread as it comes out of the mouth of Curtis in “Take Shelter” even when there’s daylight outside. Spoken in Michael Shannon’s gravelly baritone, the words get trapped in the ether of Jeff Nichols’ existential horror film, pervading it entirely.
It’s fairly clear early on in “Take Shelter” that the storm exists only in Curtis’ head, though the oily, orange-tinged raindrops he can feel on his hand during his nightmares might as well be stains on his bank account. A construction worker with a dutiful wife (Jessica Chastain) and a deaf daughter due for a cochlear implant, Curtis still feels it necessary to build an underground bunker on the parcel of land behind his house as the walls between reality and his dreams begin to crumble. His fears are exacerbated in both directions — the missus’ desire to buy a nicer home comes as Curtis is uneasy about his future and the history of dementia in his family rattles around in his head until he’s able to visit his mother (Kathy Baker) who suffers from it.
Nichols does little to ease poor Curtis’ mind with elaborately staged dream sequences that touch on all of his most innate fears and plagues his real life with health insurance copays he’s reluctant to accept. It’s Nichols’ skill as a writer/director to create a sense of unease with subverting things only slightly, turning the preternaturally smiley Katy Mixon of “Eastbound and Down” into a harbinger of doom as the wife of a co-worker and relying on the shock of Curtis’ nightmares to linger longer than usual after he snaps back to reality. Everything in this daily life is disorienting, even if it’s relatable, right down to the subconscious oddities such as discovering Curtis’ doctor’s name is Dr. Shannon when the actor playing him has that surname.
Given the hint of frenzy that exists in Shannon’s eyes and any baggage he might bring to the role, it’s hard to say his performance as Curtis is a revelation, but playing on the fact he’s usually cast as a crazy, the struggle of his everyman trying to break free is invigorating as a welcome change of pace. Shannon simmers for much of “Take Shelter,” anxious and always teetering on the borders of civility – when he finally drops the façade to warn of the oncoming reckoning in public, it’s simply jawdropping. And Chastain doesn’t sit idly by as his wife, bringing a depth and stability to her character that embodies everything Curtis would lose if he follows his more increasingly erratic instincts.
Through cinematographer Adam Stone’s lens, “Take Shelter” unfolds in wide open spaces that grow claustrophobic, as if the American dream has become constricting when there’s so much room for opportunity and yet the negative space feels like additional weight on Curtis’ shoulders. Without context, the film is satisfying as a thriller that plays on our greatest anxieties in human terms. But in contemporary times, Curtis’ descent is particularly unsettling. Retreating from the burdens of work and family in a self-created trench, he deals with the resignation he may never leave to face the outside world he finds so suffocating. For the rest of us, it’s just breathtaking to behold.