From its opening shot, Take Shelter, the second feature film from director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), blurs the line between the real and the imagined. Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is standing in his backyard in rural Ohio when, all of a sudden, dark clouds gather and a mysterious brown rain begins to fall from the skies. But before we can even make sense of this scene, the film reveals that this is just part of Curtis’s nightmare.
On the surface, Curtis lives a stable life. He is a well-paid construction worker who happily supports his loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his precocious daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). But an inner storm is brewing, one that involves, well, a storm—Curtis has vivid hallucinations of howling winds and torrential rain. In Curtis’ mind mundane, common scenes melt into nightmarish scenarios. He thinks a dog has attacked him, but it turns out that Hannah is merely playing with the family dog. He hears booming thunder when, in reality, the loud noise originates from machinery at his work site. Nichols frames these shots by seamlessly shifting between the delusions and real life. From the audience’s perspective, the hallucinations drop in out of the blue, just as they do for Curtis.
After a series of troubling nightmares, Curtis seeks medical attention to combat his addled mental state, but the visions become even more severe and personal, involving scenes where harm is inflicted on his family. These hallucinations also start to seriously distract him from his daily responsibilities. He obsessively builds a storm shelter to shield his family from an imagined, impending doomsday. He skips work, throws away money to buy materials for the shelter instead of saving up for his daughter’s surgery or the annual family vacation, and spends entire nights holed up inside the shelter.
Samantha patiently accepts that this might just be a phase, but as Curtis’s hallucinations become increasingly fantastical, she grows increasingly concerned. Curtis never explains his bizarre behavior, so it’s up to her to maintain the semblance of tranquility. Even though she senses that something is awry, she keeps her bearings, hoping that she can help Curtis regain stability. Chastain, adding to her repertoire of consistently strong performances this year (in The Tree of Life, The Debt, and Texas Killing Fields) gives Samantha tenderness and depth, making her believable as the anchor of the family while Curtis struggles with his painful visions.
The talented Shannon has made a name for himself as a character actor in a wide range of films, including 8 Mile, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Revolutionary Road, even receiving an Academy Award nomination for the latter. He portrays Curtis with such silent fervor that when he finally reaches the pinnacle of his madness and loses his grasp on reality, it seems abrupt. It’s hard to believe that there has been a slow and steady progression to the state of sheer mania he eventually reaches.
Adding to the jarring nature of the film are the scenes of tranquility. The idyllic fields of the Midwestern countryside and the LaForches’ lively breakfast table chatter are juxtaposed with ominous swarms of birds and blinding lightning. Nichols frequently makes good use of close-ups on ordinary objects—the back of Curtis’s truck, rainwater tapping a windowpane, the grass blowing in the wind—to convey the speed at which Curtis’s visions consume his otherwise calm and relatively normal life.
However, it is quite frustrating that Curtis slowly becomes powerless when faced with his maddening hallucinations. Why does he keep adding to his storm shelter even though he knows his visions are imagined? Does he know that they’re imagined? Why does he allow them to worsen instead of getting treatment immediately?
And then there’s the question of whether Nichols is alluding to a greater metaphor. The film’s ending suggests that the storm represents a basic human fear—that everything we know will disappear in an instant, that there’s a catastrophe waiting to catch us off guard. Perhaps, then, it’s all right to harbor irrational fears because, in a world like ours, nothing is ever certain. However, you can only shelter yourself from the uncertain for so long.