It's surely an accident of timing, but Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' tense miniaturist portrait of domestic paranoia, resonates with a recent obsession in this reviewer's household: the gripping AMC series Breaking Bad. In each, there's a happily married middle-class couple with a single, mildly disabled child. In each, the husband has reason to fear the future and fear for the safety of his family. And in each, the husband responds to his fears by going on an increasingly hellish private odyssey that threatens his relationship with his family—the very people he so desperately wants to protect.
The visual schemes of the two dramas also employ dramatic landscapes. Breaking Bad's New Mexico setting lends itself easily to sweeping, doomsaying vistas, but Nichols has to work harder to invest his Ohio locale with that kind of meteorological drama. But that's just what we get when the film opens and we meet Curtis, a sand mining engineer. In the early scenes, clouds gather before him, the wind picks up, the dog barks and something just isn't right. Curtis can't put his finger on it, but his unease won't leave him alone. Whether he's at home with his wife and daughter or drilling the earth with co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), the world around him seems to be seizing up, preparing to unleash a storm of destruction of the sort we associate with Revelation.
Soon, Curtis is revamping his family's hurricane shelter, turning it into the kind of long-term facility more suited for surviving The Road (good luck with that). To pay for it, he takes out a loan he can't afford, but his paranoia worsens as he suffers from increasingly terrifying dreams. He begins lying to his wife and friends, and his performance at work suffers.
What's going on? It's to the credit of Nichols that he's never too on-the-nose about the source of Curtis' anxiety, and he also makes Curtis self-aware enough to seek professional help. Curtis' mother lost her mind when he was a kid, and he knows there's a good chance that he, too, is suffering from delusions. But is he crazy? What if something is actually going to happen? Nichols tries to keep this option open as he makes a film that seems designed to glom onto the uneasy spirit of our times.
It's a valiant, worthy effort, but the film doesn't go far enough—and doesn't succeed in escaping its influences. For example, one of the most celebrated indie films of the 1990s was Todd Haynes' Safe (note the similar evocation of refuge in the title), which told the story of a woman becoming mysteriously ill—allergic to the 20th century, as the film put it. The casting, too, is a problem. Curtis is played by Michael Shannon, who gets typecast as crazy—and shot his crazy wad a few years back in Bug when he played a paranoid drifter covered with imaginary insects. As his wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain is indistinguishable from her character in The Tree of Life, where she was also the suffering, angelic wife of a well-meaning but dangerously dysfunctional husband.
In a sense, Take Shelter is the flip side of The Tree of Life, Terence Malick's earnest but overblown rumination on cosmic anxiety. Where Malick reached for too much, Nichols seems to reach for too little.