Curtis is a hardoworking guy with a beautiful wife Samantha, and their daughter who has recently become deaf Hanna. Curtis begins to have foreboding nightmares, that all begin with a storm, and end with violence towards him and his family, and in some cases violence committed by those he loves. In order to protect his family from these visions of a storm coming to ravage the land, he becomes obsessed with adding on to his tornado shelter. He begins to think he is inflicted with a mental disorder and seeks out help. The more he finds out about his problems, and the more he builds, the more vivid and personal the dreams, all brewing into a storm unlike any other.
Take Shelter, the second film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is a masterful work of suspense and dread that utilizes realism and a slow buildup to pack an emotional and satisfying punch. Despite it being his second film, Nichols shows control behind the camera, perfectly manipulating and calculating every scene in a linear trajectory towards madness. I expect this from veteran directors who have control and ease with their work, but at his early stage in his career it says a lot about the talent and potential of this artist.
It doesn't hurt that two stunning lead performances help anchor the story, and bring life to these deep and emotional characters. Jessica Chastain proves time and time again why she is destined to be a star, and why she deserves an Oscar nomination for something this year. She holds herself up as the supporting wife and mother, but we can see her vulnerability, her confusion, and her pain as she deals with her husband's increasing insanity and visions. She is graceful and emotional (and given a lot more material than The Tree of Life). But the real revelation here is Michael Shannon. His control as an actor, and his eventual breakdown are brilliantly portrayed. His powerhouse performance is enhanced by the subtle and slow storytelling, allowing Shannon to flourish with an emotional performance that is easily one of the best performances of the year.
There is something about Take Shelter that simply makes it work. Sure it could have used a little more pace, but Nichols, Shannon, and Chastain, embrace the slow, steady climb to insanity in a foreboding terror. It is particularly terrifying because it strikes so deep into the hearts of its viewers. We see a normal hardworking family man brought to the breaking point by his own mental faculties. This is a frightening thing to think about, especially after we become so connected with him and his family. His story is heartbreaking, his visions terrifying, and his story completley absorbing.
While this is not a film for most casual viewers, and those that are truly interested will still need patience, Take Shelter manages to create a building sense of dread and heartbreak through its impeccable direction and stunning lead performances.
Oscar Potential: Actor (Shannon), Supporting Actress (Chastain), Original Screenplay (Nichols). In this crowded year most likely none of these will come true, but if there is some critical support, them maybe these three categories will at least be in consideration.