The first thing you notice are the skies. They can be vast and blue or ominous and gray; they send sheets of rain that shatter the sun's rays, with thick drops that glisten with the yellowy sheen of motor oil.
Either way they seem sprawling, powerful, inescapable, and they clearly portend an encroaching danger in "Take Shelter."
But the question is, is this an external threat? Or does it originate from within? Writer-director Jeff Nichols keeps us guessing until the very end - and even the ending is open for interpretation. His film is both daring thematically and striking aesthetically, even as it pierces at the heart of the most relatable, everyday anxieties we all experience. He achieves such a seamless balance and such a gripping, tense tone, it's hard to believe this is only his second feature film.
At the center of this increasingly frightening scenario is the tremendous Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, an ordinary man whose subconscious produces extraordinarily disturbing visions. Shannon is one of the most fearless actors working today; his convincing ability to visit dark places has been on display in recent films including "Revolutionary Road," which earned him an Oscar nomination, and "Bug." But here, his hulking presence suggests he's a gentle giant: he evokes our sympathy as much as our suspicion.
Curtis works as a crew chief for a sand-mining company and lives in a modest house in small-town Ohio with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who's deaf but is awaiting corrective surgery. He is stoic, hard-working, devoted. The attentiveness and care with which he and Samantha practice sign language with their daughter indicate that they are a decent, loyal, loving family.
But then the nightmares begin, waking Curtis each morning in a sweaty panic. The visions become more insistent and menacing, full of attacks and intruders. In one of his more visually arresting dreams, he's clutching Hannah to his chest as the living room furniture levitates, then comes crashing back down to the floor. Even though we know these are dreams - and we know that he'll wake from them - they're rendered so vividly, they shake us up as viewers, too.
Curtis is reluctant to share what's troubling him with his wife, even though she clearly recognizes that something is wrong and wants to help. Chastain takes what could have been a quiet, forgettable supporting role and brings the character to life with naturalism and grace. She also shows her versatility once again this year, following extremely different roles in "The Tree of Life," ''The Help" and "The Debt."
Eventually Curtis realizes that something is coming - a massive storm, the apocalypse, it's hard to name exactly - and devotes all his time, money and energy to fortifying the family's tornado shelter. In the dark of night, with the shelter doors flung open to allow bright orange light to burst from the ground, it looks like the portal to hell. One by one, he makes decisions that confuse and disappoint everyone around him, even though he's doing so in the name of their protection. Sedatives don't help him; neither do visits to a counselor. There's just a single-minded focus that, in time, alienates those he loves most.
But there's something else: a history of paranoid schizophrenia in the family, which afflicted his mother in her early 30s and perhaps is taking hold of him at the same age, too. Kathy Baker is heartbreaking in just a single, delicate scene with Shannon; what they don't say spells out so much about who this man has become.
And so we're back to wondering: What's real and what's in Curtis' mind? The prevailing metaphor may seem overly simplistic or heavy-handed - ooh, there's a storm a-brewin', what could it mean? - but the resulting mood of paranoia is unshakable.
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for some language. Running time: 120 minutes.