Gloom and Bust Cycle: Shannon, top, and Shepard prepare for the end.
Gloom and Bust Cycle: Shannon, top, and Shepard prepare for the end.

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The storm that threatens in Take Shelter doesn’t pit man against nature so much as it pits man against himself. Dogged by nightmares of an oncoming apocalypse, a blue-collar Ohio man named Curtis begins making odd decisions, like keeping his dog fenced out in back while refusing to answer his wife’s questions, letting the pressure of his knowledge build strength inside him like a raging hurricane.

And what a tempest it is. As played by Michael Shannon (so weirdly menacing in Revolutionary Road and so weirdly weird in The Runaways), Curtis is a bomb about to go off, even while he politely pooh-poohs the concerns of his family and coworkers. He is a man both lumbering and domesticated, yet there’s something about that heavy brow that telegraphs trouble ahead. (Although, in the film’s paint-by-numbers build-up, perhaps not as strongly as a colleague who muses early on, “You got a good life, Curtis.”) Curtis can prepare physically for the end of days, but he can’t do much about the demons in his head.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (auteur of 2007’s barely released Shotgun Stories, which also starred Shannon), Take Shelter is a dread-inducing and sometimes downright creepy exercise in Hitchcockian paranoia. Curtis dreams mostly of fierce lightning storms with brown rain (there’s also one in which his dog mauls his arm), but he sees things during the day, too—odd figures out to get him, his living-room furniture collectively rising, black birds flying in thick, ominous formations before falling dead from the sky. His doctor agrees to a mild sedative and recommends a psychiatrist, but he’s too far of a drive. Still, Curtis is concerned, because his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia around his age. A local therapist proves useless.

As does Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain). She can’t help him because she doesn’t know what’s going on. She’s patient and compassionate for a while, thinking his night sweats are the result of a cold. But when Curtis brings a backhoe home from work and spends money they don’t have to reinforce the family’s storm shelter, Samantha starts getting pissed, threatening to take their little girl and leave.

Soon the whole town is looking at Curtis like he’s nuts, so communication with Samantha is only a Band-Aid. And that storm, it’s still coming—in his head and in the real world, he insists. Curtis’ downward spiral is cringe-inducing, buoyed considerably by Shannon’s tense, tortured performance (and matched by Chastain’s angry-but-helpless one). Nichols has a talent for foreboding imagery: Not since the Master of Suspense have birds been so frightening. The scene with levitating furniture could be straight out of Poltergeist.

The taut story is at once a portrait of a marriage crumbling under the weight of secrets and an serviceable allegory of societal paranoia. Tragedy—not just the weather-related kind—has emerged from the bluest of skies. Whether we’re conscious of it, we’re always waiting for the next big thing. So is Curtis crazy or a step ahead? The film’s finale may be a head-scratcher, but one thing’s likely: No matter how sticky it is the next time clouds darken or you see a flock of fowls, you’ll get a little chill.