There's a lot to be said about Michael Shannon. He is a great actor carving out a niche for himself playing highly troubled individuals. Take Shelter starts with Shannon standing out in motor-oil-thick rain as he blankly stares into space. Right away we know there's trouble brewing. Moving beyond Christopher Walken's "hey I get it, I'm psychotic" manic territory, Shannon, epitome of a tortured soul, lets everything get under his skin.
There are a lot of normal-looking scenes in Take Shelter, but Michael Shannon does not play normal. As a guy named Curtis living with his wife (the excellent Jessica Chastain) in a small, unspecified Ohio town, Curtis is under pressure with a mortgage, a mother in an assisted-living home and a deaf six-year-old daughter. But none of that thwarts his obsession to build a backyard storm shelter to survive the devastating apocalypse he perceives is looming. Storms really are brewing out yonder, but the real storm is in Curtis' brain. He's plagued by nightmares as his mind begins to slide into madness and his devastating downward spiral takes his friends and family along with him. Shelter is an amazing, artistic, somewhat slow moving film that gives us a chance to see a rare hybrid of honesty and suspense.
We expect a big blowout and lots of psychosis from an actor like Shannon, but what we get is subdued acting that lets us see inside. This is not an over-the-top performance, but rather a nuanced study of paranoiac madness supported by the kindness of love. It's a testament to excellence when an actor can yank all that inner-demon-angst inside and make us want to help from this side of the screen. Writer/director Jeff Nichols creates dialogue with such simplicity that we just sit back and feel for the characters' problems. The cast brings authenticity to everything they say and feel and they feel way more than they say.
Shannon has made a fairly decent career out of playing conflicted characters, from morally mixed-up agent Van Alder in Boardwalk Empire to the ranting drifter in Bug, not to mention the raving nut-bag intellectual in Revolutionary Road (which garnered him an Oscar nomination). Sure, Shannon's performances are a quirk fest, but in Take Shelter we witness a deep ability to transform. Shannon might not ever be an A-list leading man, but he's definitely going to be around a long time.
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols