Director Jeff Nichols, working with Shannon for the second time after 2007's Shotgun Stories, has produced a compelling dive into a psyche spiralling into the abyss. From the outset, we see Shannon's Curtis staring at a faraway storm as dark oily rain falls from the sky. It's the first of his vivid nightmares, which heighten as his mind begins to unravel.
Curtis works in construction and is married to Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain). The couple have a deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), and are scrimping together money to get her a cochlea implant to save her hearing. As Curtis's dreams begin to get more intense (and involve both Samantha and Hannah) his behaviour becomes more erratic. Worried that he has inherited paranoid schizophrenia from his mother, he seeks help from his doctor, then a counsellor. Yet, convinced his visions may be prophetic, he starts to restore the storm shelter out in his back yard.
Nichols experiments with genre in hallucinatory moments that bring to mind horror movies. Obscured figures terrorise Curtis, trying to abduct Hannah and causing him to crash his car. In one haunting sequence, each piece of living room furniture lifts into the air. Curtis's borrowing of work equipment to dig up his back garden and install the shelter leads to him getting fired, prompting further strain on his relationship with Samantha.
As the refuge takes shape, Curtis must confront a crucial choice about how to best protect his family. Should he take them down with him or is it best he goes there alone if the storm arrives? As this dilemma plays out in the final act, there's an escalating sense of dread that envelops the movie.
It's in this time that Shannon and Chastain wrench up their characters' emotions and deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations. Shannon's explosion of rage during a town get-together is typical of some of his recent turns, but in truth his portrayal of Curtis is delicately layered with pain brewing below the surface.
Take Shelter's stunning closing scene also leaves much to ponder. This ambiguous ending will stir up debate as to Curtis's state of mind and sanity, but the journey getting there is a riveting and compelling one.
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