There's a really good horror movie buried somewhere in Take Shelter (2011, directed by Jeff Nichols). I think the filmmakers know it, too, because they spend a large part of the movie dancing around horror movie imagery. More than one sequence is reminiscent of a zombie movie, while others recall disaster movies and J-horror ghost stories. There's also an economic horror movie here, in which a family that has heretofore done everything right, that is participating fully in the American dream, loses its footing and falls off the precipice. I don't think the movie manages to synthesize all of these strains into a cohesive whole, though. I think it's undone by its own millennial vision.
The story here follows Curtis LaFourche, a mining technician somewhere in Ohio, who by all accounts has a perfect life: family, job, house, everything. Oh, his daughter is deaf, but the family is learning to deal with it. So why is Curtis having these horrible dreams, in which a terrible storm looms on the horizon, in which his dog turns on him, in which the people around him attack him like so many zombies. Curtis's mom was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was a kid; is this the onset for him? It freaks him out and he does seek help, for what good it does him. In his freakout, he fixates on the tornado shelter in his back yard and takes out a big loan to expand it. He uses equipment borrowed from his work, and when it's discovered, he loses his job, and, importantly, his health insurance. His insurance had just cleared a cochlear implant for his daughter, so this does not please Samantha, his wife, at all. He pushes ahead with the shelter in any case, and when a storm actually does come, he locks himself and his family into the shelter. He's convinced that this storm is the apocalypse. Samantha has other ideas, of course, and must convince him to let them all out.
In synopsis, this sounds like a terrific suspense movie. Locked into a storm shelter with a man whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best? That sounds like a corker to me. But the filmmakers don't exploit this in this way. For that matter, the effort to convince Curtis to let everyone out of the shelter? That could be an awesome dramatic piece, and that's closer to what this movie intends. But when all is said and done, the function of the shelter at the end of this movie kind of slips away from everyone. Here's what this sequence does: It promises a suspense film it doesn't deliver. It promises a dramatic scene that underwhelms when it comes. It promises a twilight zone-ish twist that it doesn't deliver, then DOES deliver after the shelter is a memory. As I say, this wants to be a horror movie, but for some reason, it doesn't know how. And I don't even think this is an example of an upscale filmmaker dodging the horror genre, either, because it bloody well plays with the toys. The visions Curtis LaForche has are horror movie images, whether it's the ominous role of birds, the special effects of the storms, or the persistent zombie movie tropes. This is a movie that has horror in its DNA.
All of which is a crying shame, because Michael Shannon is a spectacularly good actor, and he brings his "A" game to this movie. His portrayal of Curtis captures confusion, fear, resolve, and a whole gamut of other emotions demanded by a difficult part. The movie also has its finger on the pulse of the times, too, when it suggests that the American dream is only a step or two away from calamity. All it takes is a little shove: a bad illness, a mistake at work, or both at once. There's real fear to be had in the economic malaise this movie presents, because it's a malaise that's everywhere right now. This is coupled with intimations that the world is spinning down, that the climate is changing in horrifying ways and that time is running out. These are real-world horrors and the movie is clear-eyed about them. The way Take Shelter presents all of this has a method to it, too. It's a movie that roots its horrors in the mundane. The movie spends a lot of time watching the day to day routine of Curtis's family, whether it's following them to an ASL class or to a crafts fair where Samantha sells handmade stuff or to various small-town social functions. This is totally early Spielberg, in which the mundane co-exists next to the fantastic. Look at how many scenes in this movie are set around a dining room table; how many are set in drab offices. Hell, Curtis's breakdown even resembles Roy Neary's obsession with Devil's Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The last scenes in the movie scatter all of this to the wind, unfortunately. It's not necessary for the movie to go where it goes. In fact, by making some of Curtis's visions real, it voids some of the deep wells of unease that the rest of the movie has so scrupulously dug for itself. That it comes after a false ending feels like a cheat, too. This is a film that could have used more ambiguity.