At one point in Jeff Nichols’ remarkable latest film, Take Shelter, one friend says to another, “You’ve got a good life, Curtis. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, ‘That’s good.” Michael Shannon’s character is Curtis. It’s his best friend Dewitt, Shea Whigham, speaking. Curtis does have a good life. He’s happily married to Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain. He’s the loving father of a little girl, who happens to be deaf. He has a modest home, and friends. Curtis is not a stereotype, it begs to be mentioned. Nichols keeps such things far away from this film. However, it can generally be agreed, Curtis has a good life.
This point is carefully established, without it being too in-your-face. And it sets up the truly scary story that follows. The risk of losing it all seems terrifying to the audience as the simple and logical story unfolds. Curtis, who’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her mid-thirties, all at once, begins having disturbing, life-like dreams that threaten to carry over into real life. In one dream, shadowy, dark figures surround the car he’s driving in with his daughter, Hannah. The figures break the windows and steal his daughter and he’s powerless to help himself or her. In another, similar figures attempt to invade his home, and while Curtis clutches Hannah, all the furniture in the room rises into the air and crashes down hard.
There is real horror in these dreams, both for the audience, and for Craig. His behavior becomes disorganized, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of turning his tornado shelter (Curtis’s family lives in northern Ohio), into something more substantial–as he’s sure something, an incredible storm perhaps, is coming. All he knows is its something bad. Very bad. Aware that he is not acting normally, he urgently seeks help from a family doctor first, then at a free mental health clinic. He even checks out materials on mental illness, and presents his therapist with an understandable self-diagnosis.
Despite his best efforts, Curtis’s life begins to unravel. And it’s frightening. If Curtis was crazier, if preached of the end of the world on the corner, or even showed signs of being rattled, the clever atmosphere of the film would not have reached such remarkable levels. Most unsettling is Curtis’s calm demeanor. His rational thinking (most of the time), and his strange duality in that he understands he’s becoming deluded, but continues to build the shelter, as he can’t help but believe in his premonitions.
Shannon’s performance powers an all ready strong film. But here, he’s relentlessly brilliant. His haunted presence onscreen is truly unforgettable. Nichols, who also wrote the script, ends this film with a scene that unsettles by asking more questions instead of giving answers. It is a fitting end to such a heartbreaking and honest movie.