The storm effects are scary in that awe-inspiring, we-are-tiny-that-is-big way that is so rarely pulled off. This movie could do for storms what Psycho did for showers if it wasn’t already playing on a pre-existing dread of them that many people have.

Take Shelter is an intimate movie with a tiny cast anchored by powerhouse performances from two phenomenal actors, as well as some nice supporting work here and there. It seems to be a movie about a guy who is losing his mind and has to wrestle with himself, his past, and the contradictions that ensue when his (apparent) delusions and his relationship to his family come to a cross-purpose. Even though much of the film is subdued as opposed to dramatic, there is an intensity and drama to the visions that Curtis experiences which punctuate the more mundane elements of the plot. With a relaxed pace that some would describe as slow, it falls to the visions and the intensifying stakes in Curtis’s personal life to supply the momentum toward the film’s incredible ending.

Curtis (the inestimable Michael Shannon) and Samantha (the omnipresent Jessica Chastain) seem like a pretty normal, happy couple whose major challenges are saving enough money for a summer trip to Myrtle Beach and coping with their newly-deaf daughter whose condition is probably temporary anyhow (cochlear implants, bitches!). However, Curtis has a troubled history we learn about in pieces and which begins to permeate everything about his life. Through dual (great) single-scene performances from Ray McKinnon and Kathy Baker as Curtis’s brother and mother, we learn quite a bit of non-expositional information about Curtis. The story goes that Curtis’s mother developed paranoid schizophrenia and left her family, eventually needing permanent hospitalization. There is a real strain in Curtis’s relationships with both family members that is clearly a result of all the shit they must have gone through in the past. All three actors tell the meat of this story via gestures, looks, and other subtle pieces of acting that nonetheless give us a complete picture of Curtis’s primary motive: crazy or not, he doesn’t want to leave his family. Unfortunately for him, his visions put him at a distance with everyone around him.

There are several domestic scenes that tell you what kind of people these are. In short, they are simply good people.

The irony of Curtis’s dilemma doesn’t escape the film for long. One of the most interesting things about it is in how Samantha handles what is happening to her husband. In most stories where one member of a friendship or marriage is starting to seemingly crack up, there’s a small range of reactions that can be fairly described as typical. Most of them are not flattering for the characters and are usually obviously contrived to supply added drama and tension. There’s plenty of both between Samantha and Curtis as things begin to unravel for them, but Samantha navigates it in a fiercely loyal yet uncompromising manner that solidifies not only the strength of their bond but also why they (and especially he) are worth rooting for in the first place. It is this that makes Take Shelter a stand-out film even if it was just about a guy coping with the onset of mental illness but more on that later.

Some of Curtis’s alienation is due to the presence of people from his life in his apocalyptic dreams. Even his dog shows up in one, crazed and biting his arm. It soon becomes clear that the mysterious disaster he thinks is about to occur has something to do with truly powerful weather phenomenon which seems to come with the added bonus of making people crazy via strange, yellowish rain. The nature of this disaster is kept inexplicable for good reason though it will bother the shit out of stupid people.

Though Curtis does suspect that he’s losing his shit, he can’t help but take precautions in a quiet and practical way. Before things really start to reach their breaking point with Samantha, there is a great scene where he rises above her presence in his dream (you’re left wondering why she isn’t in them until the moment when she is, then it’s like ahhh) and what must be an intense wariness if his reactions to the dog and his work buddy (Shea Whigham) are any indication. I don’t know how others will feel about this but I think Curtis’s stoicism and practicality in the face of his plight are heroic. He takes steps to identify whether or not he’s gone nuts while also preparing for the very thing his maybe-psychosis is warning him of. To wit, he sees a counselor and his mother and reads up on mental illness while also taking out a home improvement loan to add to the existing storm shelter on his property. That act gets him into hot water and brings his relationships to strain and ruin and he bears all that with a tortured but determined bearing that engenders our sympathies even as we roll our eyes (if we believe he’s crazy) at just how bad he’s fucking up.

The daughter, Hannah, is a central figure and often in danger in Curtis’s visions. Though he is protecting her in them, there is a sense of danger around her, part of which emanates from Curtis himself.

Now to talk about that ending.

NIGHTMARISH APOCALYPTIC VISION OF SPOILERS INCOMING

Up til the last ten minutes of the film, it’s pretty even-handed with whether or not Curtis is actually crazy. The whole time I was hoping it wouldn’t be the case. The visions he has are too elaborate and detailed and intense to simply be the backbone of a story about sheer mental illness. That said, it would seem cheap if they dangled this “he’s crazy” thing in front of the audience for 2 hours, up to and including a detailed history of mental illness in his family, if nothing was going to come of that.

So Take Shelter tries to have its cake and eat it to. It is a testament to the skills of writer-director Jeff Nichols and the craft of his actors that it actually manages to do this. Not barely, either, it does it beautifully. It’s not even a close one.

The way this works in the film is that Curtis’s visions are put to the test when a crazy storm actually does occur and the next day, everything is fine. He is paralyzed with the certainty that the world outside has gone completely crazy. Samantha, who has weathered all this shit with her own heroic stoicism and practicality… with an abiding love for the man echoed in his unspoken commitment to the protection of her and their daughter, challenges him to open the door to the shelter and see for himself that his delusions are false. She tells him that doing so is what staying with them means and it’s a really intense, emotional scene as he struggles to rise to the occasion and overcome his fear and irrational certainty.

The brief shelter sequence leaves you in tense anticipation: is this what he’s foreseen or what? A tension, for us, between the rational and irrational reactions that his experience inspires.

It’s a truly beautiful scene, foreshadowed earlier by his acceptance of her touch after she gets wise to her role in his dream. And sure enough, Curtis emerges into the aftermath of a pretty bad, but not world-shattering storm. Curtis’s warring confusion and sense of relief are as palpable as rainfall and the movie quickly moves on to what is apparently the ending: Curtis sees a psychiatrist who recommends he do exactly as his mother did and all his fears come full circle as the family heads out to Myrtle Beach to give him some breathing room and on what may be their last vacation together.

And yes, the movie could have ended here and left the audience with just the cake: an elegant and intimate story about dealing with mental illness. No one would have blinked at this.

But Nichols had other things in mind. Thus, the movie continues to their beach house with Curtis and Hannah playing on the beach while Samantha cooks something. The environment is familiar, we’ve seen this before. When I saw her there, I knew what was going to happen next and I looked back on the film I’d mostly just seen in wonder. It turns out their beach house kitchen is the one Samantha was standing in when she appeared in Curtis’s dream. As soon as I realized that, I knew that when Hannah hesitates in her play that she is seeing those fucking doomclouds looming over Florida and all bets are off. The storm that tested his visions before was a storm and not the storm.

The music swells and Samantha just stars first at Curtis and then at those clouds an she says, “okay” and the cake has been eaten.

Even if this ending feels strange given the satisfying though sad reasonable ending to Curtis’s story as we see it, it remains almost stunningly effective. In spite of the dread and horror of it, there’s a beauty too which is only possible because of everything that preceded it. My sense is that Curtis deserved to be right about his visions and to not be crazy. He’s a heroic man, in that small domestic way we so often overlook, and though the end of the world seems to be in motion, there’s a hope that his initial pragmatism in making preparations will be enough to save him and his family.

And so it’s a movie about a possible apocalypse with a hopeful, uplifting ending. One that will stay with you long after the movie ends.

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