Jeff Nichols’s second feature, Take Shelter, is almost as barmy as its protagonist, a man ravaged by apocalyptic visions and nightmares. But Nichols has a genius for making landscapes and everyday objects resonate like crazy, for nailing the texture of dread. Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichols’s stunning debut, Shotgun Stories, plays Curtis, a crew chief for an Ohio sand-mining company with a tireless wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who sells homemade crafts at a flea market, and a deaf little girl, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who’s in a lonely world of her own. In Curtis’s dreams (sleeping and waking), storms bring rain with the viscosity of oil, his dog rips him to pieces, locusts blot out the sun, and humans stagger through the night like movie zombies. Curtis knows it might all be in his head: His mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia at about the same age he is now. More and more, he devotes his hours to prepping the storm shelter in his backyard for—what? Hurricane? Flood? Plague? Whatever it is, it will be like nothing the world has ever seen.
The danger in casting Shannon instead of a milder soul is that he comes to each part with a personal haunted house and that his latest unraveling might seem like déjà vu. But the actor, his great, overhanging brow creased with confusion, is a truly anguished presence, mythically inchoate. Nichols makes sure what’s eating Curtis is eating you, too. He breaks down scenes into images of destruction—not just obvious ones, like funnel clouds and spiderwebs of lightning across the Ohio fields, but chains and valves and shovels scoring the earth. Nichols and his cinematographer, Adam Stone, evoke the feeling of being inside a house staring out at a deluge—the kind of will-it-never-stop rain that makes even home-sweet-home seem like an emergency shelter.
Take Shelter would seem as obvious as its title if the early scenes weren’t so lovingly detailed. Stewart’s Hannah has a quiet but beseeching presence, and Shannon’s attempts at sign language make him seem like the gentlest of giants. And Chastain turns an entirely reactive part into a major presence. Is she the most vivid actress to hit the screen in years—maybe decades? On the basis of this film and Jolene and The Debt and even The Tree of Life, I’ll say she just might be. Partly it’s her otherworldly beauty, which writer Tom Shone describes as “of that fascinatingly multi-planed sort—alternately luscious and drawn—that makes you hungry for as many angles as possible.” But it’s also how she moves, how her dancer’s body physicalizes emotion, in this case her love for her daughter (through her fervent signing) and the fear of her husband’s escalating mania. She can tense a muscle and charge the space.
Nichols has a good eye for actors—I wanted even more of Shea Whigham as Curtis’s hangdog co-worker and Ray McKinnon as his mysteriously insinuating older brother. And his feelers for the country’s bad vibes are supernaturally keen. Shotgun Stories centered on a feud between two sets of half-brothers, and it captured the connection between fatherlessness and the impulse to wreak vengeance like no American film I’ve seen. The obvious comparison to Take Shelter is Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a woman (Julianne Moore) is slowly dying from modern life. The male version comes a decade and a half later, at a time when the Book of Revelation has entered mainstream politics, when each year brings a new prediction of the exact date the world will end, when hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and heat waves and melting ice caps and industrial accidents and no jobs and Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes are fixtures of our conscious and possibly unconscious lives. The end of Take Shelter is … we’ll talk after you see it. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. This is a terrific monster-movie manqué—a pure distillation of portent.
The title 50/50 denotes the chance Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has of surviving (and, for that matter, not surviving) a rare spinal cancer—odds that his loud pal Kyle (Seth Rogen) points out would be the best ever if he were a casino game. That’s the kind of line that puts the movie over. As a joke, it’s more shrill than funny. As an expression of Kyle’s divided impulses—to cry out in horror and to say something upbeat—it’s funny and touching. Unlike most disease-of-the-week movies, 50/50 is itself split: Its focus lies half on the young man, blindsided by the prospect of a swift and early death, half on the people who behave like idiots in the face of his illness. Cancer becomes a springboard for tragicomedy instead of bathos.