Every time I see Michael Shannon onscreen, I always want more. Take Shelter has made me careful what I ask for, however, because this movie is two full hours of intense Shannon Bug Eyes & Gritted Teeth. A compelling chronicle of mental illness, prophetic visions, and love for your family, with few clear answers to the questions that any of those things raise. On the surface, the movie is about Curtis (Shannon), a husband with a deaf child (Tova Stewart), working as a contractor in Ohio. Life is going well until he begins having vivid dreams about familiar faces in his life doing him harm, like his dog, his best friend and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain). Then he hears massive thunder in the sky, sees dark clouds forming, and gets sideswiped by flocks of birds, among other things. His response is to risk financial and professional ruin by expanding his storm shelter while his entire town watches nervously.
Director Jeff Nichols creates a stunningly beautiful, tiny American town, complete with lingering shots of water running down window panes and lights flooding through open doors. The environment is so rich and undisturbed, it makes it that much more upsetting when the tranquility is broken by the visual and aural assaults in Curtis' dreams. The audience has no more information about what is going on than the family does, and watching each one of them process what's unfolding is like seeing a gorgeous, slow motion car wreck.
The script never takes the easy way out by giving any concrete information, nor does it pigeonhole its characters. Curtis is concerned he is losing his marbles like his mother did at the same age, and is suffering silently, until his actions force conversation. When that happens, Samantha stands valiantly by him as much as she can while being terrified that their family is losing him. Of course, while all of this is going on, there is the even more disturbing question of "What if he's right?" looming over them. Somehow life goes on and bills need to be paid even when you're having visions of apocalyptic storms, and all of these factors keep layering on top of each other until the tension gets so thick in the air that it finally combusts. And that's going to be the scene for the Oscar highlight reel.
Jessica Chastain has had a busy year, and one of her other movies,Tree of Life, felt identical in many ways. It definitely had a similar ending that generated much conversation when the movie ended. Although it begins to feel a little long based on the enormous trepidation it creates, if you appreciate movies that stimulate discussion, this movie will keep you plenty busy. Just remember to bring an umbrella.