A storm is coming that will wipe out mankind, so take shelter. That’s what Roland Emmerich would tell us. In “Take Shelter,” director Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories”) has other plans. With painful grace and execution, Nichols tells the story of family-man Curtis (Michael Shannon, “The Runaways”). There’s a storm brewing in Curtis’s head, and its black, oily thunderous rain could decide either his fate or ours. In a whirlwind of hallucinations that obscure the line between reality and delusion, Nichols treats his audience to what could just as easily be a disaster movie as an agonizing glimpse into the disintegrating mind of a schizophrenic.

Take Shelter

Sony Pictures Classics
At the Michigan

Curtis isn’t an extraordinary man. He’s not rich, he’s not good-looking and he operates drills for a living. But he’s got one thing going for him — he’s normal. In comparison to his drunk, wasted friends, he’s got his life sorted out. Within the first few minutes of the film, one is moved by his support and compassion for his deaf daughter Hannah (newcomer Tova Stewart) and wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, “The Tree of Life”).

Nichols uses the connection between Curtis and the audience to his advantage when the nightmares start. With every passing dream, Curtis encounters a storm that sends him into a raging panic in the middle of the night. And it doesn’t end when he wakes up. Every night brings some new horrors and every day Curtis breaks just a little bit more. The man we loved from the start fractures before our eyes. All the while, the audience doesn’t know whether to believe his premonitions or sympathize with his mental condition.

Nichols’s agenda is ambiguous — “Take Shelter” shuffles between apocalyptic foreboding and the precarious state of the human mind. Until the last minute, it seems to be about the latter. Knowing Curtis’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, it appears natural that Curtis is headed in the same direction. But this movie’s abstruse end beats “Inception” at its own game and the ever-nagging guessing game of whether Curtis was right returns to square one.

If there’s one storm that’s surely coming, it’s Michael Shannon. Every flinch of his hand betrays his solitary distress. As Curtis, Shannon dances around the emotions that overtake his better judgment, knowing they’re delusions. It’s excruciating to watch him build the storm shelter — the ever-persistent battle between reality and his mind is pitiful and solemn. And though it would seem far-fetched to expect another to match his performance, Chastain does. As the exasperated yet supportive wife, she’s a dream to watch.

Perhaps that’s what makes this film so extraordinary at times. There are moments when it slows to a disappointing degree and Nichols uses some masterful cinematography and wide scenes of the storm to counter the pace. But while all else is inconsistent, the performances keep the film flowing. Disaster movie or not, Shannon’s evident conflict and internal storm are the driving forces of “Take Shelter.”

Disregarding the underlying hints of imminent catastrophe, “Take Shelter” is a phenomenal ode to the fickle nature of the human mind and how, like it or not, all are at its disposal.

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