LIFE IS EMPTY, and the world is cold, and eventually even the most basic things we rely on—ourselves and those closest to us—are stripped away. Sometimes you can see this coming; sometimes you can't. Sometimes everything just goes to shit, and that's when you decide that the only logical thing to do is tear up your backyard and build a really impressive tornado shelter, because the increasingly terrifying dreams that wake you up—dreams that jolt you upright while screaming, sweaty, lying in piss—have convinced you there's a hell of a storm coming. And this is when you will wonder if you are finally seeing things clearly or if you are going insane.
Take Shelter is pretty goddamn intense, largely because it sucks you inside the stuttering consciousness of the taciturn, tense Curtis (Michael Shannon), a 35-year-old blue-collar worker in small-town Ohio who starts having some pretty goddamn intense dreams. Aside from the nightmares, Shannon's life plays out as one senses it always has: He's got an adorable, deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), a kind and sweet wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and a mother (Kathy Baker) who's been living in a care facility for years, ever since she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. That diagnosis came around the time she was Curtis' age, actually, which may or may not have something to do with Curtis' increasingly intense freakouts. "I'm afraid something might be coming," Curtis quietly confides to Samantha, hesitantly telling her of the dreams in which a brutal storm bears down on his family. "Something that isn't right. I can't describe it. I just need you to believe me."
Samantha does what she can, as does Curtis' pal Dewart (Shea Whigham), but as Curtis' behavior grows increasingly extreme—as he spends money he doesn't have to fortify his tornado shelter, as he abruptly gives away the family dog, as he throws up and hallucinates and grows angry at the frailty of the mental health care he nervously seeks out—he finds himself increasingly alone and increasingly frightened. Take Shelter takes place inside this guy's head. It's a rough place to be.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols has a clever, merciless eye for what'll most effectively poke at and twist an audience; if nothing else, Take Shelter is a convincing trip into the head of someone who may or may not be going insane. Rooted deep inside Curtis, Nichols' film shudders with a propulsion powered by more than the sum of its parts: In chunks, Curtis' challenges seem manageable. In total, they're devastating. Some distracting CG aside, Nichols renders Curtis' fragmenting life in a way that's jarring, wearying, and heartbreakingly realistic.
It's impressive, if more or less really, really un-fun, and then comes the ending, which I'm not gonna go into because spoilers, etc., but it's a thing that irrevocably colors all that's come before. It's been a while since a film's final frames have influenced the ones before it so harshly. On a technical and emotional level, there's plenty to be impressed by throughout Take Shelter, but that's easy enough to see and feel and acknowledge: Critics are going to like this thing, but I'm more interested in what people are going to say to each other when they come out of the theater—worn-out and dazed, and, more likely than not, glad they're anyone but Curtis.