The tension in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is nearly unbearable, and it unfolds within the realm of kitchen-sink realism—in a man’s increasingly irrational behavior toward his family, his co-workers, even toward his own mind and body. It’s about a construction worker plagued by traumatic dreams in which birds gather in eerie formations and the rain turns viscous and muddy. Has he inherited his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia, or are these premonitions of the end of the world? Stoic and strong-willed, he tries to hide his mounting panic from his wife and young daughter; he doesn’t want to burden or worry them. But his paranoia increases, and he begins to make preparations for an apocalypse that he realizes may only exist inside his head. When his wife comes home to find him installing a state-of-the-art storm cellar—more like a fallout shelter, really—in the backyard, he realizes that he has some explaining to do.
Take Shelter is virtuosic and at times overwhelmingly powerful, but in intimate ways: this is a film largely driven by character, dialogue, and acting, all of which are wonderfully handled. As the latter-day prophet Curtis, Michael Shannon is both scary and heartbreaking. It’s not a hammy, over-the-top performance like the one he gave in Revolutionary Road. Shannon’s acting style is more interior here, aside from one explosive, bug-eyed rant (a kind of cloudburst). His face, with its haggard, asymmetrical features, does most of the acting here, and he barely opens his tight mouth even when he talks. He plays Curtis as cagey but tough, balancing on the knife’s edge between vulnerability and erratic violence. Having grown up in rural New York state—and having lived briefly in southeastern Ohio, where the film is set—I’ve known men like that, whose stone faces seem unreadable; they could be hiding kindness or anguish. Shannon’s performance suggests that even the quietest men carry with them bottomless reserves of love, fear and pain. As his stubbornly faithful wife, Jessica Chastain delivers perhaps the best of her three great performances this year. With Shannon, she creates one of the fullest and most moving representations of a marriage I’ve seen in a film.
I have some reservations about Take Shelter, mainly having to do with Nichols’ uneven hand as a director; at times he doesn’t seem to know where to put the camera, and his transitions between scenes are cumbersome. (His clunkiness works in the favor of the film’s terrifying nightmare sequences, though, where the off-beat editing rhythms help ratchet up the intensity.) The film’s final twist is also a colossal misstep; it’s a “gotcha!” trick worthy of Shyamalan. Was Nichols afraid that if he had kept the film within the realm of realism that it would have been too safe? Up until its last scene, Take Shelter is an example of what realist cinema can do—of how even a story about ordinary blue-collar folks living in the most banal of places can be told with ambiguity, nuance, and tremendous feeling, and how the relationships within a family can give rise to more suspense than any of this year’s action-blockbuster spectacles.