In Take Shelter, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) stands in his yard in Ohio, staring at the horizon and sensing that something is wrong. Storm clouds are massing in the distance, and when the rain begins to fall, it has the consistency of motor oil. It's just one of the many troubling sensations Curtis has recently noticed: Birds flock in strange patterns, his pet dog nearly bites off his arm and his living-room furniture levitates.
Curtis has what his friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) describes as a good life. He has a good job with a sand-mining operation; his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), is beautiful and supportive; his young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), though deaf, is developing nicely, and his first-rate health insurance is going to cover most of her cochlear implant. So what does Curtis have to be anxious about? Is he going crazy, or is he tuned in to some larger apocalypse?
Take Shelter is a deeply unsettling movie. Writer-director Jeff Nichols doles out information as strategically as a government official. Curtis doesn't confide in Samantha until late in the story, although his increasingly erratic behavior becomes harder for everyone to ignore. Bit by bit, Nichols allows details to accrue: Curtis' mother (Kathy Baker, appearing in a single haunting scene) has been hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia since he was 10, his father died a few months back, and money is tighter than it appears to be at first glance. Does the nearby chlorine spill we hear about on the TV news in the background of a scene have anything to do with his mining work? Or Hannah's deafness?
None of this seems to warrant Curtis' compulsion to enlarge the family's storm cellar and outfit it with gas masks and running water. What Nichols excels at in his storytelling is mixing these strange events with life's mundane elements. Normalcy and abnormality fluidly coexist in Take Shelter, and it's sometimes a challenge for the viewer to know which is which.
The film's visual effects are magnificent, and composer David Wingo's score effectively conveys Curtis' sense of dread and growing desperation. The mega-talented Michael Shannon in the lead is Nichols' secret ingredient, as he was in Shotgun Stories.
The film's epilogue is sure to be a source of contention for many viewers. It certainly is for me. While it emphasizes the integrity and strength of the family, it also seems to negate what has come before. Without disclosing anything, let's just say that, for me, it is a major misstep in an otherwise beautifully modulated movie.