But since he’s a modern working class Joe, drilling test holes for a contracting firm, these dreams Curtis is having provoke a modern response. Is he seeing the future, birds swarming before a nightmarish rain of oil, a tornado? Or is he coming unglued? Should he protect his family by preparing them for disaster, or check himself into a hospital, protecting them from him?
That’s the provocative conflict at the heart of “Take Shelter,” the second film to team rising star filmmaker Jeff Nichols and the great character actor Michael Shannon. As Curtis, Shannon brings his usual mix of menace and vulnerability, adding confusion and acute paranoia to the brew inside of this guy’s head.
Curtis has a lovely, resourceful wife, played by the marvelously earthy and omnipresent Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “The Debt”). He has an adorable daughter, a nice rural Ohio home and a loyal dog. But he’s seen the dog bite him in his nightmares. The dog goes outside.
His pal at work (Shea Whigham, terrific) runs the gigantic drill, and on a break, sizes him up.
“You’ve got a good life, Curtis. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.”
But the dreams won’t stop. Curtis wets the bed, seeks medical help and yet hedges his bets. There’s an old storm shelter in the yard. He’s going to fix it up to withstand anything.
Shannon wonderfully modulates Nichols’ portrait of a man whose mind and life seem to unravel before our eyes. Nichols surrounds him with great character players such as Chastain and Whigham, with Kathy Baker playing his mother and Ray McKinnon (“The Blind Side”) well-cast as the concerned brother who shows up to see what’s up.
Nichols walks a tightrope between giving us a dark, Gothic tale of misunderstood prophecy and a sobering lesson on the state of mental health care in rural America. And Shannon, piling up the accolades with every film (“Reservation Road,” “The Runaways”) adds the troubled and troubling Curtis to a growing resume of vivid and utterly real off-center characters.
MPAA Rating: R for some language.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker, Ray McKinnon
Credits: Written and director by Jeff Nichols. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 2 hours