Three years ago Michael Shannon scored an unexpected (but extremely welcome) Oscar nomination for his electric performance in “Revolutionary Road.” In that film, Shannon played John Givings, a scathingly honest, supposedly “unbalanced” man who upsets the quiet balance of the 1950’s suburban paradise of Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio. Part of what made that performance so successful was the way Shannon inhabited the very edge of madness; nothing he specifically said suggested insanity (perhaps a significant lack of proper social decorum, but not insanity), but Shannon’s eyes and manner gave flashes into the deep unease below the surface.
It’s that same quality that makes Jeff Nichols’ paranoia thriller “Take Shelter” so successful – it would be hard to imagine anyone other than Shannon keeping protagonist Curtis so sympathetic even as his actions become more isolated, less explicable. On the surface, Curtis manages to keep his cool, but somewhere underneath bubbles an extraordinary discomfort and restlessness.
Curtis is a family man, blessed with “a good life,” as his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Wigham) rather touchingly phrases it early on in the film. He has a loving, capable wife Samantha (the omnipresent Jessica Chastain), a beautiful young daughter, a steady blue-collar job and a cozy home in suburban Ohio. His daughter has unfortunately lost her hearing (under vague but inconsequential circumstances) but Curtis and Samantha make no complaints about learning sign language and pursuing expensive medical treatment. There is nothing more important to them than protecting their family.
But this idyllic Americana tableaux is upended when Curtis begins to have bizarre apocalyptic visions of a terrifying storm: the sky rains a queasy brown liquid that reeks of motor oil, menacing flocks of birds blacken the sky before dropping dead, and, worst of all, family and friends try to attack Curtis and his daughter in disturbing zombie-like fashion. At first these visions manifest solely as dreams, but before long they begin seeping into Curtis’ waking life, shaking the poor man from his stable, peaceful routine.
We learn that Curtis’ mother suffered from schizophrenia, and her illness forced her to abandon her two sons. Schizophrenia is often described as an inability to grasp the basic fact of one’s own existence – in essence, a kind of hyper-self-consciousness. Schizophrenic patients can sometimes be extremely aware of the abnormality of their condition, and Curtis immediately becomes concerned that his has inherited his mother’s disorder. He seeks out help from library books and local clinics, knowing that these storms must simply be the hallucinations of a rapidly fading mind.
And yet… no matter how much Curtis tries to push these visions out of his mind and call himself paranoid, he can’t fight off the sense of impending doom and dread that now pervades his entire life. He shuts his dog up in a backyard pen after a particularly horrifying dream. He flinches at the sight of loved ones who have appeared with soulless, threatening eyes in his visions. And much to the chagrin of his confused wife and friends, spends thousands of dollars on expanding an old tornado shelter in has backyard, turning the tiny little room into a veritable survival fortress. Curtis recognizes that all of these actions are illogical, irrational, and yet….they need to be done.
Nichols unwinds Curtis’ tale deliberately, letting the suspense build gradually to a denouement that is elegant yet pulse-pounding in its simplicity. Curtis’ descent into madness is slow but sure, not a clean break from reality but a steady loosening of the screws. Curtis clings desperately to an illusion of control, making it all the more shocking when, in a definitive, powerhouse scene by Shannon, he finally explodes. Schizophrenia may be the most terrifying mental illness of all, simply because those of us who do not suffer from it cannot possibly understand the specific pain that emerges from such extreme self-doubt; suitably, while Curtis is eminently relatable, Nichols and Shannon hold him at a distance, keeping him just enough of an enigma that we can’t say for sure what he will do next.
Curtis’ paranoia resonates in these difficult economic times, as he and Samantha grapple with their mortgage, health care, unemployment. Indeed, Nichols has confirmed that he intended “Take Shelter” to serve as a sort of parable for the modern American family: constantly in crisis from threats both real and perceived. The film’s final shot will probably frustrate many viewers who think it comes out of left field (a situation reminiscent, in more ways than one, of the ending of the Coen brothers’ brilliant “A Serious Man”). There’s an old joke that you’re not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you; but is there not truth in that sentiment? There is much out there in the world to worry the mind of young men and women, some legitimate and some not; but is there any way to tell which is which?
All Curtis wants to do is guard what he loves. The panic and suffering he endures all stems from a buried, primal fear that what he has will be taken away from him. Is that really so insane?
Still playing in some indie theaters. Catch it quick.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars