Movie review: ‘Take Shelter’ (2011)

In theaters

“Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, 120 minutes, rated R.

There’s a storm brewing in “Take Shelter,” the latest film from relative newcomer Jeff Nichols, and it’s not coming from the clouds, but from the mind.

Curtis (Michael Shannon), a Hank Hillish everyman working construction in rural Ohio to provide for his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart), has the kind of normal, modest life that makes his co-workers envious. It’s simple, but good.

Curtis’s past, however, is haunted by his mother’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. And like his mother, Curtis becomes overwhelmed by delusions and night terrors of end-of-days storms and rage-induced friends and strangers, leaving him paranoid and questioning his reality.

His life splits into two worlds. The first is consumed by the symptoms of schizophrenia, where Curtis builds an elaborate (and expensive) tornado shelter fearing the impending apocalypse from his dreams. Then there’s the man of reason, who’s waging a war against the hallucinations by seeking medical advice.

While “Take Shelter” relies heavily on Curtis’s nightmares and disturbed fantasies, generating scares and unnecessarily thrusting the film into horror movie territory, the most frightening elements are grounded in Curtis’s real world as he tries to hang on to his fleeting sense of sanity.

When Curtis visits his mother (Kathy Baker), she’s an empty vessel in an assisted living facility. While her son attempts idle chitchat, there’s a sense of dread as though he will undoubtedly suffer the same fate. It’s one of the film’s most effective scenes.

Here, and in every other scene in“Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon quietly commands the screen with his intense and expressive face.

In 2009, Shannon was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in “Revolutionary Road,” and there’s a chance he’ll receive a Best Actor nod this year for “Taker Shelter.” It would certainly be justified, as he brings the traits that have made him one of the best character actors working today to a leading performance. Curtis feels genuine, as he struggles to maintain his day-to-day existence while dealing with – and sometimes succumbing to – his deteriorating mental state. There’s a duality Shannon accents in Curtis that makes him one of the most complex characters in film this year.

For Shannon’s performance alone, “Take Shelter” is worth seeing. The movie itself is an effective look at a man brought to his knees by the onset of schizophrenia, although it sometimes loses focus in Curtis’s zombielike dreamworld.

Grade: B

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