Michael Shannon is a talented guy, and has smartly leveraged his Revolutionary Road Oscar nomination into the sort of paycheck-villain roles (battling Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, for instance) that will enable to him to keep making interesting indie projects, so it’s hard to get too bent out of shape over something like the Ohio-set psychological drama Take Shelter, a mannered, interesting failure about a father who might be losing his mind.
Sand-mining crew chief Curtis LaForche and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, making a push for 2011 ubiquitous “It Girl” status) have a modest but good life, even though their six-year-old daughter Hannah needs a cochlear implant. Plagued by violent dreams and visions which presage a coming storm, Curtis becomes convinced he must overhaul and restore the family’s underground shelter, casting into further doubt their already tenuous financial situation. To reveal more unnecessarily undercuts the movie’s slow-burn style, but it suffices to say that domestic arguments ensue and Curtis himself struggles with his actions, unsure whether or not he’s losing his grip on sanity.
Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nichols previously collaborated on 2008’s Shotgun Stories, and obviously have a rapport and mutual affection for one another which results in a film that never feels uncertain about its intentions, however coy and soft-peddled it is. The better, if manifestly less restrained, film in which to watch Shannon lose his mind, though, is 2007’s Bug, co-starring Ashley Judd. Despite Shannon’s Herculean efforts, Take Shelter is, put bluntly, not a movie that earns its two-hour running time.
Caught between trading in symbolism and narrative revelation, Nichols never finds a way to lift Hannah to the status of anything other than a dramatic marker, a pawn in Curtis’ plight. More problematically, though, about an hour in Nichols abandons the eerie manifestations of storms both real and imagined, which robs Take Shelter of the chance of accumulating a more pronounced sense of doom. When the last, proudly ambiguous note is struck, one leaves convinced only that there exists a greater exploitation of this same concept yet to be made, one with sharper contrasts and more starkly defined stakes. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 120 minutes)