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Stormy Weather

Michael Shannon plays a stressed-out dad with big fears in taut Take Shelter
LOOK TO THE SKIES: Michael Shannon prepares for the worst in 'Take Shelter.' Grove Hill Productions

HARD TO IMAGINE a more timely film than the harrowing Take Shelter. Watching it, one thinks of Herman Cain's offhand comment that a failed person in America only has himself to blame. This message was hardly worth even a little of Cain's substantial quantity of wind: Every working person has internalized it already.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon in a phenomenally tough piece of acting. He fulfills with interest the promise he made in his breakthrough part in Revolutionary Road as the only character without a mouthful of lies.

In this new movie about a storm to come, Shannon's face has its own share of turbulence. Square-headed as Henry Rollins or Karloff before him, Shannon looks like so many men who snap: simultaneously too weak and too strong.

And yet he's not so ominous you spend the movie wondering why everyone around him doesn't head for the hills. (When he finally blows up, it doesn't look like an actor working himself into a lather. You see a lot of actors flip over a table to show how angry they are. Very few who can do it like Shannon does; you kind of fear for the table.)

Shannon plays Curtis, a man whose rage is particularly slow-cooked thanks to director Jeff Nichols' deft hand with procedures, showing us a careful accretion of incidents of work and time off in Elyria, Ohio. Shannon doesn't play his role as a hard-hatted drill-rig operator as folksy or truculent. Neither does Curtis' boss, Jim (Robert Longstreet, excellent and refusing to give the part local color).

Also, Curtis is matched by a wife of equal strength. Jessica Chastain's remarkable year as an actress continues as she plays Samantha, quite an authentic mom. She holds down a swap-meet booth on the weekends; her off-hours are spent bugging the insurance company to authorize a cochlear implant.

It's an uneventful life. Or it would be, if it weren't for a cosmic vision that bolts Curtis out of his sleep: He foresees a major storm is coming, a storm of the size of what happened to Joplin, Mo.

This portent causes Curtis to dig up his backyard and mortgage his house and his future. He excavates a crater large enough to expand it into a subterranean shelter. When not watching the skies—even starling clouds seem portents of trouble—his nightmares are growing. He dreams first of his dog, then Samantha and then of gravity itself, all coming unglued.

Our holy books are full of this kind of story—of a prophet being given signs. But the movie gives us an alternative explanation, provided in a small but incisive role by the too-seldom-seen Kathy Baker.

Take Shelter's very title is resonant in a nation as high-strung as a harpsichord, quivering with bunker mentality. Just as Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life showed how many fathers were strangling on their neckties in Ike's day, and Todd Haynes' Safe perfectly outlined the gargantuan affluence and bad chemicals of the Reagan years, Take Shelter seems keyed to the madness of our times.

And there's an almost-funny side in the movie, too. Curtis is able to do things that a lot of worried family men only daydream about. He takes charge, he exerts dominion and he prepares for that Armageddon that everyone says is just around the corner. (But Nichols puts a solid brake on that self-indulgence; could any perfect storm be as terrible as the perfect disdain of a Jessica Chastain?)

One problem. The movie's wide perspective—the anti-yokel quality of the picture—avoids being just an artsy Twilight Zone episode. The monster storm is due on Maple Street.

But after the film comes to a bleak point—offering Curtis a faltering and remote ray of hope, here comes a twist. And this twist undoes what has been a serious-minded tragedy into something more like the moral of the story of Three Little Pigs. No one should be seated during the last three minutes.

Take Shelter

R; 120 min.


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