Writer-director Jeff Nichols re-teams with his Shotgun Stories star Michael Shannon for his second feature, Take Shelter, which has a similar setting, but a different mood. Nichols is still concerned with family legacies, and the ways people in smaller communities relate to each other, but Take Shelter is slower and smoother, deliberately developing a mood of creeping dread. Shannon plays a husband and father who works a good-paying manual-labor job by day, then returns at night to a well-kept, decent-sized house. Then Shannon begins having a disturbing recurring dream about a massive, poisonous storm that prompts erratic behavior in humans and animals. Knowing that his own mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in her mid-30s, Shannon takes steps toward getting treated, just in case he’s developing his own mental illness. But he also starts building an elaborate extension to his home’s tornado shelter, and laying in supplies. All the while, he tries to keep his wife, Jessica Chastain, from discovering what’s going on, because if it all turns out to be nothing, he doesn’t want to have worried her for no reason. He’d rather handle his own business.
Take Shelter doesn’t need to tick along as slowly as it does, and Nichols clumsily and obviously sets up a few plot points solely for the purpose of knocking them down. (The moment Chastain expresses her appreciation for Shannon’s employee health insurance, which will pay for their deaf daughter’s cochlear implants, the clock begins ticking on how long it’ll be before Shannon gets fired.) Ultimately, though, Nichols is less interested in the losses Shannon and Chastain suffer than in how they and everyone around them to react to one man’s mania. Shannon’s friends and family want to knock some sense into him, while the pragmatic Chastain keeps adjusting her plans, trying to accommodate her husband within reason. But every time Shannon seems ready to turn it all around, he has another dream, and slips again.
So is the hero nuts or not? Take Shelter inevitably moves toward an answer of a kind—one that not every viewer will like. But the ending isn’t as significant as it initially appears. Even Shannon would probably acknowledge that it doesn’t matter whether his family is wiped out by a Biblical-style apocalypse or by his mental illness. Either way, the very process of preparing for the worst can constitute a devastating storm in itself.