(Impossible to discuss this movie without giving it away, so be aware there are spoilers.)
Shotgun Stories, the 2007 drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols, remains one of the most impressive debuts of its decade. The movie, about a blood feud between two sets of rival brothers in rural Arkansas, depicted lower-class Americans without a trace of the condescension which Alexander Payne and Joel and Ethan Coen are always accused of, and which Jason Reitman and Kelly Reichardt actually employ. Shotgun Stories builds in intensity, but its best scenes depict the wit and resourcefulness not uncommon among the economically desperate. Nichols could be accurately called a classical filmmaker, yet he frequently stages sequences that don't play out the way you expect. The peace-loving sibling of the main trio, for example, doesn't suddenly resort to violence in order to prove he's a man. It's a movie made by a director who treats his characters with respect.
Take Shelter (2011), Nichols' follow-up, received a modest yet considerably larger audience as well as even stronger reviews - an impeccably crafted film with a talk-about ending that's given it an element of staying power. It takes nothing away from Nichols' abilities as one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation when I say that I think he misfires badly this time: psychological thriller is not his metier. Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an Ohio construction worker with a wife and daughter who begins to experience troubling nightmares. The family dog bites him. His daughter is kidnapped. Most of all, the weather turns dark and terrifying in the form of downpours and twisters. His dreams take the form of waking visions when he starts to hear thunderclaps that nobody else hears and sees birds circling in ominous formations that nobody else sees. Convinced that a massive storm is coming - while also considering the off-chance that he's losing his mind - Curtis invests his money and energy into rebuilding the underground tornado shelter on his property, estranging himself from his family and putting his job at risk.
Anything can happen when a skilled filmmaker clashes with the conventions of a genre. (Random good example: Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight; random bad: Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear.) Take Shelter gives us an Everyman whom Everyone thinks is going crazy, along with a deaf child in need of a medical procedure that requires his healthcare plan, in case our emotions were in need of further goosing. Yet Nichols keeps the other shoe from dropping for so long that I wish he had avoided the inevitable altogether. It's revealed that Curtis's mother (Kathy Baker) is a diagnosed schizophrenic who abandoned him when he was a child, and the possibility that Curtis too may be inflicted by bipolar disorder is treated (at first) seriously and compassionately. Eventually, though, Nichols resorts to the deck-stacking side-stepped by his first film, the kind where most of the protagonist's problems would be avoided by simply telling those around him what's going on. Curtis loses his job as the result of a contrived chain of events involving his co-worker/best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), culminating in showy fisticuffs at a community dinner where Curtis bugs his eyeballs and screams at everybody that "A STORM'S A-COMIN!", or a jeremiad to that effect, as tables are turned over and silverware goes flying.
Screaming and eyeball-bugging come all too easily to Michael Shannon, whose knack for overacting can be amusing in doses but is frequently hard to take at center-stage. Relatively subdued in Shotgun Stories, Shannon's soft-spokenness in Take Shelter is belied by his own physical tics. We need to see Curtis as a normally functioning human being to care about his decline, and Shannon - like Vince Vaughn in the Psycho remake - looks like he's woken up with flopsweat his entire life. It's not entirely his fault, though. Nichols directs his actor to spend half the movie craning his neck up to the sky, and what he sees (and we see) look like fairly impressive special effects - yet nothing more than CGI. I imagine it will be argued that if Curtis is hallucinating then his hallucinations should have an air of unreality. But I think that circling birds -- like the bats swarming over downtown Austin in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, an indelible image that looks and feels authentic -- need to appear real if we are to believe that Curtis believes they are real.
Credit Nichols for testing himself, and I hope he doesn't stop trying different things, but it's clear that he isn't playing to his strengths here. His interests in Take Shelter clearly lie in depicting the everyday struggles of characters dealing with crummy jobs and rising gas prices and high pharmaceutical co-pays. He's also highly adept at conveying a loving marriage under siege. As Curtis's wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain, in one of her half-dozen remarkably varied performances from last year, gives to her co-star much more than she gets - but that's right down her wheelhouse as an actress. There seems to be nothing that isn't: Chastain is put through the paces of bewilderment and frustration, anger and fear toward her husband's madness, only to double-down on steely resolve to help him overcome it. Her big moment, in what should have been the film's climax, is both touching and powerful, only to be betrayed by a denouement in which the director ditches his creative integrity. Nichols probably needed the ending he came up with to get the movie made in the first place: What studio wants to greenlight an honest movie about mental illness? And, yes, it's still "open to interpretation" that either the storms in Curtis's head turn out to be real or his wife is now sharing in his insanity. Both options are utter nonsense; though I suppose if you're Terry Gilliam or Randy Quaid (quite a target demographic), one or the other has appeal.