The looming, unshakeable dread that hangs over Take Shelter starts with the opening scene: Leaves rustle in the wind as gray skies dump oily, rust-colored rain on Curtis LaForche, a 35-year-old Ohio sand-mine manager with a loving wife, a deaf daughter, and the usual blue-collar problems of not having enough money to go around. The literal and metaphorical rain that pours on him during that scene never really lets up.
And that's exactly what worries Curtis (played by Michael Shannon, who was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his role as a nutcase neighbor in Revolutionary Road). He has nightmares of a storm so unrelentingly fierce that it sends the family dog into a bloodthirsty frenzy and birds into swarming black armies.
The dreams begin to affect his work and his relationship with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, in her best role in a year that's already included The Tree of Life, The Debt, and The Help).
Initially, Curtis shrugs off these visions, which he also begins to see when he's awake. But they eventually become so intense and so consuming that he has no choice but to prepare for the apocalypse by building an expensive tornado shelter in the backyard. As he tells Samantha: "It's not just a dream. It's a feeling. I'm afraid something is coming."
That Take Shelter is set in rural Ohio is no coincidence: The film was produced by Clevelander Tyler Davidson and shot mostly in Lorain County. It created a buzz when it debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and makes its local debut this week (see sidebar for more).
Throughout the film, writer-director Jeff Nichols keeps building Curtis' horror: Rain falling on the house transforms into a menacing figure at the front door. A car ride home turns deadly. And he wakes up from his terrifying dreams in urine- and blood-soaked sheets.
What's going on here? Curtis looks for answers by reading up on mental illness at the library and visiting his doctor. But he might be avoiding the obvious: His mom had a breakdown that destroyed the family when he was young.
The storms in Curtis' head get more intense as Take Shelter unfolds, and Nichols doesn't let up. Neither does Shannon, who gives one of the year's best performances as a man stuck in the center of a psychological torrent. Even in the scenes where he isn't cracking up, he's on the verge of losing it. He's a bundle of nerves, skirting the fringes of sympathetic and scary.
The movie itself is a lot less obvious with its intentions. Curtis' apocalyptic fears are as matter-of-fact as his self-diagnosis, leaving a wide distance between the film's emotional sway. It stands back and watches Curtis fall apart — and like him, you're left feeling helpless and hopeless. Take Shelter won't always connect with your heart, but it will mess with your head.