Continuing a fruitful collaboration with lead actor Michael Shannon from Shotgun Stories, writer-director Jeff Nichols attempts with his second film, Take Shelter, to viscerally connect his audience with the terror-fraught, deteriorating mental state of a Midwestern construction worker. “You got a good life” is the enviable but ominous evaluation of Curtis’s (Shannon) best friend and co-worker on an exurban Ohio building site. Though a loving husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain, a tenacious keeper of the hearth more earthbound than her Tree of Life ideal) and attentive father to his deaf six-year-old daughter (Tova Stewart), Curtis loses sleep over a series of vivid nightmares in which he’s attacked, by the family dog or faceless enemies, in tableaus of apocalyptic storm clouds and driving rain, and in waking life begins to hear echoing thunderclaps on clear days. Shannon, with his thin-lipped, masklike face that suggests the unsettling recessiveness of young Christopher Walken in roles like these, carries the movie nearly all the way with his taciturn vulnerability, his panicked, stoic Curtis shielding Sam as much as possible from his sweat-soaked dreams and creeping fears that the schizophrenia that long ago led his mother (Kathy Baker) into an assisted-living facility has now made a genetic claim on his mind.
Nichols, who with cinematographer Adam Stone renders the widescreen flatlands and wind-rustled trees in this rural setting as both pacific and threatening, pushes a little too hard at connecting Curtis’s illness with the economic disquiet in the heartland. Most relevantly, this working-class protagonist’s increasing instability and paranoia on the job is tied to the danger of losing the health insurance that will pay for his child’s cochlear implant, and the heart of his responsibility as a parent; when he takes out a risky loan to massively and pointlessly expand his subterranean storm shelter, over the misgivings of his bank officer and behind his wife’s back, Shannon’s blend of certainty and helplessness against his delusions are more painful than the adulterous betrayals of other domestic dramas. His workmanlike conscientiousness at attempting self-diagnosis (he checklists his symptoms against clinical texts from the library to assist his counselor at a free clinic) is a heartbreaker.
It’s not easy to give a character study concerning mental illness the aspect of a psychological thriller without some notes of exploitation or trivialization creeping in, and Take Shelter makes a few missteps. Nichols stages Curtis’s CGI and flying-furniture nightmares, mostly frontloaded into the opening half hour, with an aura just short of Freddy Krueger hokiness, and a couple of the film’s climactic episodes, particularly a tough-love dare from Chastain’s Sam when her husband finally leads the family into the crucible of his revamped shelter, are guilty of therapy-drama overreaching. But Shannon’s haunting work, from Curtis’s mounting fears of flood and wind to his anguished public outburst at a community chowdown, keeps the audience filled with an active, dreadful fear of seeing a good man destroyed by a cursed fate.