“It’s still stormin’.” A taut masterpiece of prescient dread, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ control in “Take Shelter” is exemplary, and a huge leap from the already strong work in his observant first feature, “Shotgun Stories.” Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) works as a sand miner and lives along a tornado alley in a rural Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and six-year-old daughter Hannah, who is deaf. The hard-working Curtis is taciturn, about the age when his mother developed delusions. (In her single scene, Kathy Baker, in exquisite measured close-up, captures a lost life.) She wandered away when Curtis was ten, and “a week later they found her eating trash out of a dumpster in northern Kentucky.” Visiting a doctor after he begins to have ominous dreams about strange weather, the slightest flicker of the doctor’s eyelid in recognition of Curtis’ potential life of flaw is an example of the quiet, powerful details Nichols accumulates. Chastain’s every-beauty is pitched against the stolid granite of fir-tall Shannon, and the physical performances of both alternate between common and uncommonly extraordinary. Outside, day clouds are pretty and plain, puffs of white, expanse of common blue. Nichols finds telling details everywhere in the countryside, in mood akin to Eggleston and far from Shore. But there’s a wicked, damaged splendor to what Curtis sees. At first, he has visions, tremulous, intruder-ridden, furniture-levitating. Viscous tan-back dribs of oil fall from the sky. He reeks, he sleeps, he sweats. Later, stopped by the side of a highway, the night sky fires and streaks with bolts and clusters, like crests of ganglia and neuron bursting from the skull in ordinary madness. He imagines the planet, he’s at its center, the weather goes mad around him. Curtis seems a sainted fool somewhere between cousin Johannes in Dreyer’s “Ordet,” Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters” and Lodge Kerrigan’s errant schizophrenics. He becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter in the back yard, to shelter his family, Noah’s Ark in the ground, a storm shelter to shield from the potential vagaries of the Ohio plains. His daily life crumbles. When Samantha finally confronts Curtis, they’re surrounded by a patch of fireflies—no one noticing—rising, luminous, visible; unseen. The fireflies hang, drift, blink, out of focus, blots of light as if you scrunched your eyes closed so very tightly. The possibility of the deadly storm or an “airborne toxic event,” the phrase for the commonplace apocalypse in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” seems to be only in one man’s head, but then the ending is as simply and as directly about faith as the end of “Ordet.” Sandcastles are abandoned. Sky and sea grow dark. Nichols’ hallucination of latter-day trepidation offers a stunning moment, yes, of transcendence, conveyed by, among other details, a husband and wife’s exchange of nods and two words that say everything: “Sam.” “Okay.” As the last shot cut to black, I couldn’t help but cry. As the last thank-you credit passed—to Hello Kitty!—I wept again as the lights came up. Meanings for the ending are there to be taken. It’s a powerhouse. 120m. (Ray Pride)
“Take Shelter” opens Friday at Landmark Century, Evanston Cinearts and Landmark Renaissance.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.