There’s a moment when Curtis (Michael Shannon), chaperoning his sleeping family across the dark flooded highways, pulls over and steps out of his car. Off in the distance, crackles of lightning tear apart the sky, pounding the earth below it in fury. Looking around while cars behind him continue to drive by and his family rests undisturbed, he asks aloud, to the world, if he’s the only one seeing this apocalyptic sight. Jeff Nichols’ second feature Take Shelter has been conjuring its own storm on the festival circuit, a study of a humble man who suffers against an behemoth enemy only he can see.
Michael Shannon is Curtis, a modest Midwesterner who works construction, loves his wife (new fest circuit star, Jessica Chastain) and child, participates in the small community and is loved back respectably for each of those things. The year ahead seems bountiful for the family, their vacation fund is peaking and their insurance holders manage to arrange a procedure to fix their young daughter’s hearing. But there is something growing in the recesses of Curtis’ mind, a terror that begins in the fringes of his vision which quickly swells into full-blown paranoia.
Curtis suffers from dreams and visions of what appears to be his sleepy home terrorized by awesome storms, droplets of oily brown liquid from the sky, flocks of birds that took some moves from Hitchcock, torrents of deadly winds and suddenly even other people, close people, turning against Curtis. This anguish manifests itself into a storm shelter Curtis devotes himself to building in the backyard, one that will strain his relationship with everything around him.
What at first appears to be a paranoia plot cracks open a whole hidden layer when it becomes apparent that Curtis’ biggest fear is the fear itself. His mother had fallout with dementia, like the dark clouds on the horizon, this fact is yet another haunt in the jumble of Curtis’ head. He’s tormented in every way, trying to build a structure he’s certain is mandatory, while also fighting that very certainty the shelter is worth it. Excuses, defenses, even offensive, the storm shelter is the only evidence that Curtis has any control over an uncertain world, and he`s bet the car that he needs it.
Nichols paces his films like he’s holding the tension in a straining closet, family and community being as friendly about Curtis’ behaviour, only putting pressure on when he’s too far gone. From here it’s a whole other kind of tornado, Curtis’ desire to protect the one he loves instead destroys the love towards him.
Nichols’ tense look into paranoia is a hard one to shake. Until a tacked-on seeming epilogue, Take Shelter doesn’t over-extend any metaphor or inject drama to the supernatural. It’s terror, terrible transfiguring terror, and it’s the unstoppable fear that grips us all. Even the humble. Even the kindest.