“Take Shelter.” But what from?

"Take Shelter" is entertaining, depressing, tense, scary, unfunny. Great acting (Shannon for an Oscar!), and a mind-blowing ending

If you think the economic system in America is making you crazy, you’re wrong. You aren’t crazy. Things actually are this bad, and they’re about to get worse. There’s a dark, violent storm coming, with huge lighting and poisonous rain and tornadoes and zombies. Metaphorically speaking.

So sayeth “Take Shelter,” an awesome new movie starring the great weirdo Michael Shannon. “Take Shelter” mixes essence of horror into family drama. It has something deep and angry to say about society.

A big, scary storm doesn’t have to be so metaphorical in a movie.

Shannon plays Curtis, a kind, quiet, small-town Ohio family man. Curtis’s wife is a little redhead played by Jessica Chastain (recently of most movies in theaters, including “The Debt,” “The Help” and “Tree of Life”). Their young daughter is cute and brown-haired and deaf.

Curtis begins to suffer terrible nightmares, which we experience with him to jarring effect. There is a massive storm in the dreams,
punctuated by booming thunder or thick rain that looks and feels like fresh motor oil.

The dreams get progressively more terrifying. Strangers whose faces we can’t see will attack Curtis from outside in the motor-oil rain, and pull his screaming daughter from his arms. He is badly mauled by his dog in one dream, and finds that in waking life he’s grown scared of the pooch.

As is wont to happen in such movies, the line between the dream world and the real world starts to blur. Curtis believes something heavy is at work in his head. He becomes sadly, desperately scared for his family, convinced a life-threatening storm really is on its way. He takes out a risky loan to build a fortified storm shelter.

What’s Curtis really afraid of? Losing his health insurance. Seriously. His daughter is in line for an ocular transplant to restore her hearing. That real dream dies if Curtis loses his job.

Finances are key. There are brief moments in “Take Shelter” when we see the high cost of putting gas in his truck, or glimpse how difficult it is for this family to save some money for a beach vacation.

The storm is literal in the film, but what it represents is the destruction of the middle class. Our grasp of the American dream has become so tenuous, the film suggests, we may have crossed a tipping point into hopelessness. (Full disclosure: I think a lot of movies are about this same subject , including “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” I’m right though.)

Curtis worries he’s going insane, and visits his mother at a mental institution to discuss her descent into paranoid schizophrenia when he was a boy. He needs a real doctor, but the only medical care he can get is inadequate counseling at a local clinic, where his worries aren’t appeased.

Shannon personifies fear in this flick. His performance is amazing. The movie’s highlight is its soul-wrenching finale – which hits like a battering ram – but the entire psychologically twisted tale is a ride worth taking, in large part because his performance is so affecting.

Shannon’s face could be a painting titled “Torment.” One of his big, unblinking blue eyes appears a bit wider than the other; his lips barely part when he talks.

He performed fascinatingly in the even more paranoid (and great) “Bug” in 2006. Two years later, he schooled Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with an Oscar-nominated 10-minute performance that stole “Revolutionary Road.”

I love this scene. Watch how angry he makes Leo, and that great bit where he disses his mom, played by Kathy Bates:

Sweet parting shot.

(He’s also fantastic as a repressed, overly religious madman hunting bootleggers for the government in HBO’s prohibition-era gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire.” And he’s playing General Zod in the “Superman” movie they’re making right now.)

Again, the ending of “Take Shelter” is a beast, the freaky cap on a fast-pace buildup of tension including Curtis’s public freakout at a community dinner. I won’t say what happens – you should really experience this flick for yourself – but know that it does settle what’s happening to Curtis, crystallizing a fear of the immediate future many Americans probably share. This is a movie that hits home, and chills to the core.

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