In “Take Shelter,’’ Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, an Ohio husband and father who wakes up one day and smells evil on the wind. He senses it even before he wakes, in recurrent nightmares that render him mute with dread. Writer-director Jeff Nichols stages these dreams as time-lapse premonitions of apocalypse: a family dog turning on its master, flocks of birds massing in mysterious patterns, thick rain falling like oil, and shadowy figures that lunge through car windows at Curtis’s loved ones.
Because he’s a Midwesterner and a family man - because he’s responsible - Curtis initially keeps his visions to himself. The drama of this slow, inexorable stunner - Kafka in the heartland - is in watching a blessedly normal guy give in to paranoia, first in baby steps and then with something like relief. At first, Curtis just suspects. By the final scenes, he knows, and in knowing he assumes a wrath of nearly biblical proportions. He’s a modern-day Noah looking desperately for a boat.
It’s Ohio, though, and the oceans are far away. Curtis’s backyard looks out on an endless expanse of grass and clouds and, off in the distance, other people’s houses. It’s the promise of the frontier fulfilled. So instead of an ark, he starts building himself a fallout shelter, “borrowing’’ the equipment from the sand-mining company for which he works and outfitting the shelter for the long haul. Each of Curtis’s acts takes him further from the dull slipstream of Middle American life, and people start to notice: his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), his best friend and work-crew companion, Dewart (Shea Whigham), and then out into the concentric rings of their small community.
What does Curtis see? The chilling genius of “Take Shelter’’ isn’t that the threat is never specified but that it doesn’t need to be. There’s a broken economy behind those roiling clouds, and terrorism, and a planet spinning toward meltdown. There’s a faceless bureaucracy that takes forever to schedule cochlear-implant surgery for the couple’s hearing-impaired daughter (Tova Stewart) and that hangs Curtis out to dry when he seeks medical help. There’s the time-bomb in our genes: He worries that he has inherited the schizophrenia that has turned his mother (Kathy Baker) into a husk. There are mortgages and bills, the looming sense that an angry God or an unheeding universe could snuff us out like fleas. What isn’t there in this world to unman us at any moment?
Michael Shannon is one of our best working actors, but he keeps getting typecast as a squirrelly outsider, like the outpatient in “Revolutionary Road’’ or the gonzo record producer in “The Runaways.’’ (He even makes his Prohibition agent in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire’’ a figure of demented righteousness.) He has a much greater range, of course, and “Take Shelter’’ allows him to traverse almost all of it. Curtis is a good man with a good life, as Dewart is careful to remind him, and Shannon roots the character in a plainspoken decency that feels American and true. You can smell the sweat on this man’s work shirt and you know he comes by it honestly.
As the demons press in, though, Shannon lets Curtis’s terror build in increments, the open face hardening and the eyes staring at things the rest of us can’t see. He’s working toward detonation, and when it comes, it’s with a rage that’s almost beautiful in its purity. Because this is Michael Shannon, you know the hero has to flip out sooner or later, but the scene itself is indelible, iconic - a great movie moment - and much of its power lies in the image of small, scared humans shrinking from the prophet revealed in their midst.
This is also very much Chastain’s film. The actress has had quite a year, with roles in no less than six films including “The Tree of Life,’’ “The Debt,’’ and “The Help,’’ but this is the performance that makes good on her promise. Samantha is similar to but much more particularized than the mother in “Tree of Life’’ - she’s nobody’s metaphor. There’s sinew beneath the character’s weary grace, and when Sam finally realizes she has to take charge of her fraying family, her determination coexists with her gentleness in ways that break your heart.
“Take Shelter’’ plays Curtis’s unraveling at daring length. The film will be too slow and dark for some, and it’s definitely overlong. Its biggest flaw is the final scene, in which Nichols decides he has to resolve the matter. Is Curtis crazy or is he right? The tension of not knowing - the gnawing uncertainty both we and the hero feel - is the spring that keeps this movie running, and when the filmmaker chooses one answer over the other (it almost doesn’t matter which), “Take Shelter’’ suddenly becomes a lesser thing.
It’s still a remarkable work and one that addresses anxieties rarely acknowledged in our culture. “Take Shelter’’ speaks elliptically but directly to the fears most men have (and keep fiercely to themselves) that they don’t have what it takes - that when disaster comes, as it must, they will be pitifully helpless to protect those in their care. I’m not even sure you can feel the full impact of Nichols’s vision if you don’t have a family of your own to provide for.
Watching the film, I was reminded of one of the most moving works of art I know, Egon Schiele’s 1918 painting “The Family,’’ in which a nameless man, woman, and child huddle against the darkness, gazing out past the frame with expressions stuck between uneasiness and hope. If you have children, you know that look in the father’s eyes. So, clearly, does Curtis. “Take Shelter’’ is a horror movie for grown men, and it hits many of us exactly where we live.