Dir. Jeff Nichols
(2011, R, 120 min)

Take Shelter is a marvel. It’s written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who is 32-years-old and has only directed one other feature film: 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which I haven’t seen. Both star Michael Shannon, who in this film gives a largely internal performance as a Midwesterner questioning his sanity, but he has the latent tension of a trap about to spring. The same anxiety carries into the film as a whole, which is about the gathering of storm clouds in the mind as well as in the sky.

Curtis LaForche is a blue-collar Ohio husband and father suddenly plagued by disturbing dreams. The film opens with one, in which he stares up at an awesome wall of clouds that extends high into the sky and pours down a viscous fluid like castor oil; a striking low-angle shot captures its otherworldly grandeur. After that, the dreams recur every night, and Nichols composes shots using the flat landscape to its fullest effect; the ground almost seems to cower under the fearsome depth of the sky.

But this is not a “Chicken Little” story about a fanatic. Curtis gets ahead of our expectations by immediately investigating what most of us are probably suspecting: mental illness. He has good reason to do so; beyond his concern about his visions and volatile behavior is the memory of his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was the same age Curtis is now and currently resides in an assisted-living facility. His self-awareness gives the story an immediate humanity. It becomes not just the story of visions, but of a man in fear of becoming a threat to his family and himself. “Can he be crazy if he thinks he’s crazy?” my friend asked as we watched the film together. “Depends on the kind of crazy,” I replied.

It’s that internal fear that makes the film so compelling and its characters so intensely emotional. Consider a late scene inside a storm shelter between Curtis and his wife (Jessica Chastain, in easily the best of the three performances I’ve seen from her so far this year). A crucial decision about a simple act has implications about the future of the family and the acceptance of reality. Nichols lets the scene develop slowly, as he does throughout the film, holding shots – and withholding others – to maximize our dread. The pacing of Take Shelter is just about perfect, a gradual slide into uncertain psychological terrain,and the weather out there is rough.