A shame writer-director Jeff Nichols released Take Shelter too late for Greil Marcus to write one of his thousand-word ruminations on how Michael Shannon — like Bill Pullman before him — incarnates fear and trembling in millennial America. To say Shannon is perfectly cast as a Ohioan who may or may not writhe with visions of the apocalypse (birds twist into curious patterns in the sky; a thunderhead rumbles with just the right ominous portent) is like arguing that Marlon Brando brings the right physical presence to A Streetcar Named Desire. The real discovery is Jessica Chastain, who in her second major role this year as a housewife suffering under the yolk of a difficult spouse (The Tree of Life) projects a oppressed normality. Whether ineptly bargaining at a church garage sale or signing with her deaf daughter, Chastain inhabits the moment. Shea Whigham as Shannon’s best friend and colleague and Ray McKinnon as Shannon’s brother register so strongly that I wanted more of them.
By a simple inversion of the class politics, Take Shelter has much in common with Safe, Todd Haynes’ 1995 film in which a woman’s privilege isn’t enough to inoculate her from the suspicion that the very air she breaths is a poison. I’ve complained often about the way in which directors fetishize poverty (I always think of the shot of Jennifer Lawrence slapping a stick of butter on a pan in Winter’s Bone). Nichols doesn’t err: he establishes the tangled relations between church and community, between work and community; you don’t want to insult your best friend when you’ll likely see him at a church pot luck. The interest charged to a home improvement loan, putting off a vacation to Myrtle Beach, and staying at a job for the insurance coverage are realities beside which the twisters and ghostly shapes that oppress Shannon look like the bleatings of a lunatic. Take Shelter doesn’t just represent an advance from Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ debut; it’s one of the few recent American film about recession politics. But walk out of the theater before the conclusion. Like that other recent Amerindie sensation Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter can’t figure out how it’s supposed to end.