Tova Stewart, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain star in "Take… (Sony Pictures Classics )
A friend expresses admiration for his life, but nothing's right as rain for Curtis, the small-town family man at the center of "Take Shelter." The rain, in fact, looks tarnished, and the sky above his Ohio home is dark with foreboding. From the first moments of the eerie storm that opens the story, dread is the prevailing mood of this pre-apocalyptic drama — a film very much about this moment in time.
That storm turns out to be a nightmare, the first of many for Curtis, who's played with quiet, anguished intensity by Michael Shannon in his most nuanced film work yet. Shannon has portrayed his share of unhinged characters, including the truth-blurting neighbor in "Revolutionary Road" and the messianic murderer in "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done."
In this second feature by writer-director Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories"), he inspires profound compassion for a man who's either cracking up or prescient, possibly both. Does anyone else hear the growl of thunder or see those strange formations of swooping birds?
Curtis' nightmares infect his waking hours. One dream forever alters his relationship with his beloved dog, to the bafflement of his increasingly exasperated wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a beauty whose inner strength turns out to be formidable.
If he at first keeps the severity of his visions from her, Curtis isn't delusional; he seeks medical help, having particular reason to be concerned about his symptoms, as a visit with his mentally ill mother (Kathy Baker) makes evident.
Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone make affecting widescreen use of the flat horizon beyond the family's yard. But the director hasn't drummed up apprehension merely for the sake of atmospherics. There's a specificity to his film that roots it in the here and now, acknowledging not just free-floating unease but everyday fears over the price of gas and insurance co-pays.
Thanks to Curtis' health coverage from his job on a sand-mining crew, he and Samantha will be able to afford a cochlear implant for their deaf 6-year-old daughter (Tova Stewart), a bright focal point even as the clouds close in around Curtis. Looking across the threshold of the sleeping girl's bedroom, husband and wife exchange a few words of breathtaking emotional insight.
The film's unsentimental view of family love is exceptional, although it takes a while to find steady ground. With its horror-movie feints and self-consciously slow sequences, the tone is wobbly in the early going.
But as Curtis sounds his prophecies and grows obsessed with improving the family's storm shelter, the mash-up of domestic drama and psychological thriller deepens and coheres. It all comes together in that storm shelter, in a heart-stopping climactic scene that's one of the most wrenching depictions of the nuclear family ever seen on the big screen.
In Shannon's anxious gaze and Chastain's unflinching one, "Take Shelter" gives us a whole world — a world of darkness visible and unexpected light, as recognizable as it is surreal.