(Jeff Nichols, 2011)
It's a nice idea; take a modern recession-era family drama and splice in some of the horror of an Old Testament tale. Sit back and wait as modern concepts of sanity and reason are torn apart. Writer-director Nichols here confirms what his first film, Shotgun Stories, suggested; that he is one of the brightest young filmmakers working in America today. He takes this material and filters it through a unique sensibility; his eye for the huge skies gaping above Texas is matched by skill in composing frames set in the bland spaces of modern suburban and smalltown America. And his principal actors are magnificent. Michael Shannon easily evokes the sheer dread his character begins to feel when his dreams take a turn for the apocalyptic. Nichols here reveals an unexpected facility with horror imagery; these dreams are tense and eerie, even terrifying, and they haunt the first half of the film, particularly when the character begins to hallucinate too. Shannon's queasy expressions play with tremendous power when set against his usual menace. This is a man fighting for his mental health, yet gripped with faith that his visions might just be true.
Nichols complicates his situation by sketching in the delicate financial tightrope his family walks and making clear how crucial to that his regular pay check and healthcare cover is. Jessica Chastain is called upon mostly to react to Shannon's madness and suffering, but she creates a layered character out of what could be a cypher; she is frightened but tough, loyal and protective, and she has a couple of scenes of stunning power. Her facial expression in the final scene is brilliantly loaded, believable and ambiguous.
They are given solid support by the underappreiated Shea Wigham in another barely-literate hick role, which somehow only adds to the authentic, textured quality of Take Shelter, a tremendously assured, gripping and beautiful film.