Michael Shannon, the star of the psychological, doomsday thriller "Take Shelter", has proven considerably adept at playing seemingly normal men with seriously demented inner lives. His breakout performance, in "Revolutionary Road", earned him an Oscar nomination. He played the disturbed neighbor boy/man of suburban feuding couple Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) -- he was a man who, in his psychosis, carried ominous wisdom about the soul suffocating, picket-fence-prison of the American Dream, and how it would, in time, consume even his kindly neighbors. He was right. In Shannon's HBO period drama, "Boardwalk Empire", he plays a straitlaced Atlantic City prohibition officer with conservatism so deep his flagellations and impromptu baptisms come off as way more deranged than anything performed by the bootleggers and gangsters he's paid to stop.
Consequently, the role of Curtis LaForche seems to be Taylor-made for Shannon. On the outside he's a construction worker and family man with a beautiful young wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a deaf little girl. The three live peaceably in a farming community in the Midwest. All's well, except -- Curtis is having horrifying nightmares. They always begin with the pitter-patter of rain and the roar of thunder, then, something horrible happens to either him or his daughter. The dreams are too visceral to be ignored and similar hallucinations begin to creep into Curtis's waking hours as well. Obsessed, he starts digging out an old storm shelter in his backyard, absolutely convinced that some kind of apocalyptic storm is coming. Are his visions premonitions or the delusions of a man losing his hold on reality?
One of the reasons why "Take Shelter" feels authentic -- despite the fact that it's clearly an anxiety infused "Shining"-type paranoia flick -- is that Curtis is very aware that he might be crazy. He has too many of his faculties to be dismissed as a raving lunatic straight out, yet all the warning signs are pointing that way: his mother went nuts around the same age, the doctors think he's losing it, and even his wife is starting to fear him. But Curtis has this unshakeable feeling that there's a storm out there, coming, and he can't let it go.
The film racks up the tension from its first minutes, with Curtis staring up at a demonic grey cloud of swirling, hellish precipitation. The rain falls, not as blood or anything that easy, but as a thick yellow liquid that's unnerving simply because it's just not quite normal. At times the movie has an engrossing tactility: you can just feel the sopping wetness of the characters in Curtis's horrific nightmares. (The young family always seem so vulnerable, especially his handicapped daughter). And the shelter he builds is a wall-to-wall reincarnation of Cold War nuttiness: gas masks, rows and rows of canned vegetables, and cots that look like they were stolen from an underground army barracks; the low-key lighting entraps the characters in claustrophobic darkness.
The performances, especially Shannon's, are always interesting, and the characters act naturally enough to suggest they could exist. The whole is it real, is it not question has been done, and better, but "Take Shelter's" most insightful assertion is that it is our most irrational fears that are the hardest to overcome. When the film tackles that point quite literally in the third act, it's breathtaking. Only, the film spends too much of its middle section jump scaring us with fiendish unrealities and sluggishly following Curtis on his "Am I Crazy?" investigation. After a while, the story loses its drive toward that big, climactic storm that will either spell the end of the world or the end of Curtis's sanity.
That's a rock and a hard place you never want to find yourself between. Michael Shannon hangs there throughout "Take Shelter" with enough sympathy and menace to keep us fretting for his ilk all the way to the fadeout -- even if the plot points around them don't quite gel.