No matter who you are, you have probably recently developed a deep and surreal sense that we live in unsettled times. You may be doubting the things you thought you knew, the people around you, or even, at times, your own sanity. Sound familiar? Well. While the tectonic plates of all we once believed to be stable — politics, economy, environment — shift angrily under our feet, what better way to reflect on things than a movie about catastrophe, love, and psychological disintegration.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, an introspective Ohio construction worker with a wife and a deaf daughter. When LaForche starts to experience terrifying apocalyptic visions (strange storms, clouds of birds flying in symbolic formation), he is unsure whether they are genuine premonitions or schizophrenic delusions. Doubting his sanity, LaForche struggles to distinguish the real from the illusory as he desperately attempts to shelter his family from some impending, unnamed terror.

Where Take Shelter excels is in its use of LaForche’s unravelling state of mind to comment on the fragility of contemporary civilization: dread and uncertainty haunt the dark corners of our tenuously mundane existence. The movie opens in the post-2008 economic crisis, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and during fractious debates about healthcare, housing, and systemic corruption. LaForche’s first visions — of catastrophic storms that rain a yellow oily substance — arrive as he toils to afford medical care for his daughter on the inferior insurance package offered by his employer, neatly tying together zeitgeist anxieties about health, environment and security.

When LaForche’s visions take a violent turn, his initial helplessness gives way to a desperate urge to act. Unable to flee his job and responsibilities, LaForche begins to construct a survival shelter funded by bank loans he cannot afford (in a nod to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-8), and built using equipment illicitly borrowed from his workplace. His friends and family are at first bemused, then concerned, and finally deeply disturbed by LaForche’s deteriorating attempts to conceal his obsession with the shelter.

LaForche’s alienation is constructed in intense, brooding layers by Michael Shannon, in a tour-de-force performance. Shannon, who resembles a cross between Ray Liotta and Richard Kiel, has the offbeat looks of a classic character actor, but the presence and intensity of a cult movie star (in this regard, he is cut from the same cloth as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). As LaForche’s torment deepens, Shannon’s face buckles like beaten sheet metal; his wounded humility is palpable in scenes where he seeks help from bank managers and counsellors; his desolate confusion transmitted through unsteady hands wringing the rubber outline of a gas-mask.

Take Shelter is not a showy movie. Judicious CGI effects elide nicely with the unfussy cinematography. The soundtrack scarcely rises above a brooding murmur. Ohio rural skylines and plain urban interiors provide a simple backdrop for the affecting subject matter. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ focus is the unadorned human psyche — a topic he visits with success elsewhere, as in the Matthew McConaughey-starring Mud. Nichols’ heady blends of plodding minutiae, human angst, and jolting spectacle brings to mind Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

LaForche’s problems, like so many of our own, lie in the task of figuring out how to respond to the maelstroms we find ourselves in — what to do? who to trust? how to live? The answers to these question are not given: we each must locate the elusive timbers of comprehension and conviction that rarely break the troubled, rising waters.

8 Stars (8 / 10)

Director: Jeff Nichols
Writers: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Release Date: September 30, 2011
Runtime: 2 hr 1 mins.
MPAA Rating: R