Standing outside his small-town Ohio home, his wife and child busy preparing breakfast inside, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) looks up at the ominous, slate-gray sky in the first scene of Take Shelter. The clouds open, raining down oily, piss-colored droplets. It's end-of-days weather, a phenomenon that only Curtis seems to witness and the first of many private, impressively CGI'd apocalyptic visions to come. Like Carol White, the central, unglued character of Todd Haynes's Safe (1995), who is "allergic to the twentieth century," blue-collar worker Curtis is haunted by one of the looming terrors of the 21st: financial ruin. This unarticulated fear triggers Curtis's mental illness, and, despite a few missteps, Take Shelter powerfully lays bare our national anxiety disorder — a pervasive dread that Curtis can define only as "something that's not right."
The protagonist in writer-director Jeff Nichols's second film is, however, unquestionably a stand-up guy, a devoted 35-year-old paterfamilias. "You got it good," Dewart (Shea Whigham), Curtis's co-worker at the sand-mining company, tells his friend after they've downed a few large cans of post-shift Busch. Supplementing Curtis's modest income with the handmade notions she sells at Saturday-afternoon flea markets, wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) stays at home to look after their deaf six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), whose upcoming cochlear-implant surgery would be unthinkable without Curtis's insurance benefits, soon to kick in. The LaForche family is a loving, tight-knit trio until Curtis's gradual unraveling begins to chip away at its stability. Remaining tight-lipped about his nightmares and hallucinations involving murderous dogs, intruders, colossal atmospheric disturbances and dead birds falling from the sky, he begins to alienate family and friends over his obsession with canned goods, gas masks and the storm shelter in the back yard, which he's expanded to a subterranean labyrinth. "I'm doing it for us," Curtis sheepishly admits to increasingly vexed Samantha, understandably outraged when she hears about the risky home-improvement loan her husband took out for his deranged project.
That expense totals $6,875; dollar amounts are never rounded up or down, the precise figures underscoring the strain of keeping running debit and credit columns in your head at all times. Samantha, seen often in the same pair of Levi's shorts, accepts payment for an $8 handcrafted pillow in change — money that goes directly into a cookie tin.
Shannon, who starred in Nichols's earlier feature, Shotgun Stories (2007), has specialized in playing the brain-sick ever since his breakthrough role in Bug (2006) as a traumatized war vet clawing his own flesh to bloody ribbons. In Take Shelter, the actor adroitly falls apart; though Curtis's night terrors cause him to wake up gasping for air, wet the bed and bleed from the mouth, these dramatic incidents are followed by the silent confusion of a man too ashamed, for most of the film, to admit to his wife that he's losing his mind. It's a finely tuned performance — until Shannon delivers a late-act freakout at a Lions Club supper, popping out his peepers and bellowing to the townsfolk that "there is a storm comin' like nothing you have ever seen." Though brief, the scene comes dangerously close to negating Shannon's subtle work earlier in the film.
Though Shannon appears in almost every scene, Chastain, with much less screen time, makes just as strong an impact. The actress is, by necessity, often in reactive mode here, whether trying to make sense of her husband's frightening behavior or offering compassion when he finally explains why he's been frenziedly digging up the back yard. She sees something, she says something: Chastain grounds the film by listening and responding, making the film as much a portrait of a marriage — of sacrifice, compromise and, most significantly, boundary-establishing — as it as a portrayal of madness in crazy times. Samantha may love her husband unconditionally, but she refuses to share his psychosis — at least until the ambiguous ending.