"Take Shelter" is a great movie on many fronts, but the thing I probably loved most about it was how genuinely, wonderfully serious it was about its subject. That idea shouldn't be so novel, but unfortunately it is: At a time when the fallback position for most American indies is to be quirky, "Take Shelter" is never not authentic and absorbing. That's important since writer-director Jeff Nichols is telling a story that very easily could have gone off the rails if it didn't hit the right tone and maintain it for the film's running time. This is a movie about madness, but it's also about family, marriage, and economic hard times. Its sincerity is incredibly brave; that it's such an accomplished movie is icing on the cake.
Nichols previously made the underrated "Shotgun Stories," and again he teams up with Michael Shannon, who this time plays Curtis, an Ohio crew chief who's married to pretty Samantha (Jessica Chastain) with whom he has a deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). They have a happy home life that's the envy of others in their small town, but there's a tiny worry eating at the corners of Curtis's mind: He has nightmares full of apocalyptic visions. Schizophrenia runs in his family, which makes him wonder if it might be coming for him as well.
In "Shotgun Stories," Nichols told the story of two feuding small-town families who eventually resort to violence to settle their disagreement. The genius of that film was how Nichols took a stereotypical Midwestern homicide case -- the sort of thing you'd usually see in the paper and shake your head, wondering what kinds of hicks would do such a thing -- and made it a flesh-and-blood tale with real stakes and relatable characters. "Shotgun Stories" was a terrific corrective to a lot of flyover condescension you get in other indie and studio films. Nichols didn't make his characters saints, but he made them resonate.
"Take Shelter" takes that edict and builds upon it beautifully. This is one of those rare films in which the characters' money woes feel close to the bone, as opposed to some narrative device to further the plot along. As Curtis begins to fear for his sanity, his family's financial juggles -- including paying for an expensive surgery for Hannah -- sit heavy on your shoulders. But it's not just the money problems that make you ache for these people. Likewise, Curtis's obsession with building a storm shelter in the backyard is left largely unexplained, but its implications are obvious and unsettling, suggesting everything from suicide to murder.
Just like with "Shotgun Stories," Nichols in "Take Shelter" presents us with a character we'd probably look right past in regular life and forces us to understand his ordeal in its entirety. Much of that is thanks to Shannon, who was starting to risk being typecast as an actor who plays vaguely unhinged, somewhat inexpressive young men. Be that as it may, his performance in "Take Shelter" is now the gold standard for such a role for him, exhibiting nuanced levels of terror, quiet strength and courage that's altogether heartbreaking. At times, Curtis's journey seems to be hellbent on self-destruction, but you never question why he does what he does, even if you can see the pitfalls awaiting him. Nichols doesn't act superior to his modest, small-town characters, and Shannon doesn't either in his portrayal.
The same goes for Chastain, who plays a much more "average" woman here than she did in either "The Tree of Life" or "The Help." An important component to "Take Shelter" is Samantha's interactions with Curtis, which allow the audience to see a loving marriage slowly crumble piece by piece. But there aren't any villains in this movie, and Nichols goes out of his way to understand everyone's position -- even the locals who start to wonder what's up with their ol' buddy Curtis.
In its portrayal of a man slowly losing his grip on sanity, "Take Shelter" recalls "Safe," the terrific Todd Haynes film that starred Julianne Moore as a housewife under attack from (imaginary?) environmental illnesses. Haynes used his drama to talk about paranoia, but with "Take Shelter" Nichols seems to be after something a little more personal. (As he has himself said, the film was inspired by getting married and "the fact that I finally had things in my life that I didn't want to lose.") Consequently, "Take Shelter" is a little repetitive and drawn-out at points, the product of a filmmaker perhaps a little too close to his material. But I'll take that over the many, many filmmakers who traffic in glib ideas. With "Take Shelter," Nichols has things to say, and he says them in moving, sometimes frightening ways.