Michael Shannon proves he’s not afraid of becoming typecast as indie cinema’s go-to bug-eyed nutcase as Curtis LaForche, the Midwestern family man whose encroaching schizophrenia – in the form of mood swings, nightmares and hallucinatory episodes – leads him to believe the world is about to be consumed by an apocalyptic storm. Unable to control his growing sense of fury, fear and frustration, Curtis lashes out at his struggling, dutiful wife (a radiant Jessica Chastain), their deaf daughter (Tova Stewart), his best friend and closest colleague (Ray McKinnon) and even the family dog. But is he just crazy or is the end really nigh?
The decent guy plagued by visions routine has been done to death in everything from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’ to Shannon’s own turn in Herzog and Lynch’s eerily complementary ‘My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done’. As a result, there are a few scenes which feel a little overfamiliar, as Curtis explodes with rage at innocent bystanders or concocts elaborate paranoid fantasies involving those closest to him.
But unlike those films, ‘Take Shelter’ is not simply the story of one man’s journey to the edge, but a state-of-the-nation address detailing exactly where America (and, by extension, the world) is headed if we all fail to look up and see the clouds gathering. And although the film may stand or fall on the strength of its big moments – Shannon’s bombastic, bracing performance, a fistful of beautifully terrifying, ‘Inception’-like dreamscape set-pieces – writer-director Nichols is as concerned with the minute, everyday pressures of modern life – economic responsibility, interpersonal relationships, religious guilt, masculine pride – as with a disease-of-the-week portrayal of mental illness.
The result is an undeniably major work: a flawed, dizzying, wildly ambitious attempt to cram all of America’s problems into one splitting basket. A repository for (and reflection of) modern man’s deepest fears, Curtis is an embattled hero for our times, and the darkening world he inhabits is one we can all recognise. When future film historians look back at the cultural fallout from America’s financial collapse, ‘Take Shelter’ will be a key text. That is, if the storm doesn’t sweep us all away.