Everything seems fine at first in Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' deeply moving, deeply troubling film. Curtis LaForche (an extraordinary Michael Shannon) is the crew chief for a small sand-mining outfit in an Ohio town.
It's a good job. He has good friends and a beautiful wife - played by The Tree of Life's beautiful wife, Jessica Chastain. Their 6-year-old daughter is hearing impaired, but they're talking to doctors about a cochlear implant, and his company's health plan should cover the cost. They've even got money saved for vacation.
And then, Curtis starts having these dreams. The kind of dreams that feel real, that physically and psychically hurt, that are full of doom and dread.
He doesn't let on about the nightmares, doesn't share his torment with his wife, Samantha. But it isn't long before she senses something is wrong. The LaForches' world is beginning to unravel.
On one level, Take Shelter is the story of a man who may be wrestling with madness. Curtis' mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the possibility that he could fall prey to a similar illness has long lurked in his consciousness. But Curtis also feels - he knows - that his dreams are signaling something momentous, apocalyptic.
Nichols' film - with its telling specificity of place, of relationships, and with heartbreaking performances from both Shannon and Chastain - traces Curtis' downward spiral and the devastating effects it has on his marriage, his family, his friendships.
But the anxiety and anger Shannon projects can be read as metaphor, too. The profound unease evident across the land right now - a crisis of confidence in government, uncertainty about the economy, joblessness, foreclosures, mounting poverty, a sense that things are turning bad, and turning fast - all of this is captured in Take Shelter, in the look in Curtis' eyes.
Shannon received an Oscar nomination for his small but striking turn in 2008's Revolutionary Road, playing a damaged soul who could see right through the sham of a couple's marriage. He has played unhinged heavies before, too, and has a presence that demands attention. But the sadness and pain he carries around with him in Nichols' movie are so palpable, and so finely modulated, that his past work pales by comparison. It's impossible not to empathize with Shannon's Curtis, to feel his burden as if it were ours.
And if I sounded dismissive in describing Chastain as the "beautiful wife," well, she is beautiful, but the despair and - this is what's so striking - the faith she projects in Nichols' film, as Samantha struggles to find a way into Curtis' tortured inner life, is pitch-perfect and riveting.
Take Shelter, which, it should be said, boasts haunting but seamless visual effects, is a movie for this moment in time, this moment in our lives.