IN "TAKE SHELTER," a man stops to look at ominous storm clouds, then sticks out his hand to catch raindrops that turn to greasy, yellow oil in his hands.
Is it really raining sludge?
Are the storm clouds real?
Is the man nuts?
Pertinent fact - he's played by Michael Shannon, who will certainly be nominated for an Oscar for this role (he may win), and whose casting means everything to this quietly creepy movie.
Shannon is known for playing mentally unstable individuals, has been since his indescribable turn in "Bug" (adapted from his own stage play), his Oscar nomination for "Revolutionary Road" and more recently for his role as a self-flagellating FBI zealot in "Boardwalk Empire."
Shannon's talent can be hard to control - it can burst the containment of his character and destabilize a movie - but in "Take Shelter" it is expertly deployed by writer-director Jeff Nichols.
Shannon's never been more persuasive, and his unique persona, that of a cockeyed individual who's either a crackpot or a truth-telling visionary, has never been put to better use.
In "Take Shelter" he's Curtis, construction foreman, hard worker, solid citizen, good family man, with an enviable marriage to a pretty and devoted wife (Jessica Chastain), in turn devoted to his special-needs child.
The little girl is deaf, but will have her hearing enabled via an expensive medical procedure. A hospital administrator says Curtis is one of the lucky ones - he has a good job, his health insurance will pay for it. It's upon Curtis' status as a rock-solid father-provider that "Shelter" builds its mood of gathering-storm suspense, especially as cracks in the rock start to show.
Curtis is plagued by visions (or privileged glimpses of creepy phenomena) - storm clouds, birds falling from the sky, shadowy figures barely visible in the rain. Sometimes they are dreams, sometimes not.
He believes these things, real or imagined, are signs of approaching disaster, and becomes obsessed with improving the storm shelter in his back yard - a quest that begins to take over his life. It threatens his job, which threatens everything - his insurance, his daughter's future, his wife's confidence in him. The stakes are very deeply felt.
Throughout, "Take Shelter" is coy and clever on the subject of Curtis' sanity. He may be prudent, he may be overprotective, he may be losing it - when he visits his schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) in assisted living, we think we know the answer.
"Take Shelter," though, is clearly more than a referendum on one character's mental health. It taps into the feeling many Americans have at being one bad break away from ruin. And to the nervous mood, the dread, the apocalyptic intonations that have crept into punditry, politics and art.
"Take Shelter" picks up on it. (So does the upcoming "Melancholia," in which Kirsten Dunst is the Shannon analogue, and is being hyped for an Oscar nomination, as well.)
Again, Shannon is just great here. He makes his character relatable by showing how much of his behavior grows from paternal instinct, and is matched in that by Chastain, as the wife-mother caught between feelings for husband and daughter, between love and fear.
It's a blue-collar take, in many ways, on "A Beautiful Mind," and I think a better movie.