Michael Shannon is a creepy guy, as anyone who’s seen HBO’s Boardwalk Empire or movies like Bug or Revolutionary Road can attest. And he’s quite unsettling in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, which has a tendency to work against the story of an ordinary man beset by what may be either delusions or visions related to an apocalyptic storm on the way to his small Ohio town. Shannon’s Curtis is presented as a decent, hard-working man, concerned only with protecting and providing for his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, in her fourth awards-friendly role of 2011) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis works for a construction company and is active in the community, but even before he begins to have disturbing, horror movie-style nightmares about a devastating storm and attacks on himself and his daughter, he comes across as sinister and malevolent, thanks to Shannon’s inherently uncanny performance.
That makes some of the ambiguity of Nichols’ story less effective; it’s hard to imagine Curtis as anything other than completely nuts even as he tries valiantly to hold it together, visiting his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) and asking her how and when her symptoms first manifested, talking with a clearly unqualified counselor at a free clinic and taking medication to encourage sound rest. In the meantime, he becomes obsessed with building a large and expensive shelter against the storm he is irrationally certain is coming, and that obsession of course takes its toll on his job, his friendships and his family.
Nichols creates some wonderfully creepy moments during Curtis’ visions, and manages to build a slow-burning feeling of dread even during the most mundane domestic moments. A lot of that is thanks to Shannon’s intense, unnerving performance, which becomes more effective as Curtis descends further into whatever it is he’s dealing with. The movie’s ending puts a little too fine a point on what’s actually happening and robs some of the previous scenes of their disquieting uncertainty. Shannon remains aloof and haunted throughout, so that regardless of how things play out, you’ll leave the movie feeling Curtis’ twisted worldview eating away at you.