Shotgun Stories, the writer-director Jeff Nichols' visually striking yet narratively slight first feature, was big on brooding, ominous skies. In Nichols' follow-up Take Shelter, the rains finally come, threatening to wash everything and everyone away; it's a watershed moment for this particular filmmaker, in more ways than one. The new film's protagonist Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a construction worker in a small Ohio town who suddenly finds himself subject to apocalyptic visions and choking dreams in which his safety, and the safety of his loved ones, is threatened by extraordinary events.
Lightning storms break out overhead. Flocks of birds gather and swoop. A car crash leaves Curtis trapped with his deaf daughter inside a vehicle surrounded by shadowy figures. As one often finds with a certain species of men in pain or turmoil, Curtis's instinct is not to reach out - to his loving wife (Jessica Chastain) or his colleagues, or to the shrink eventually assigned to him - but to retreat, first inside himself, as the nightmares get ever worse, and then into an abandoned tornado shelter on his property. It's unclear how much the latter is a necessity in hurricane country, and how much Curtis has come to regard this structure as his own personal panic room.
It strikes me that, after Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia (and even before we've seen Cronenberg's Freud pic A Dangerous Method), 2011 will go down as the year the movies, and screen acting, finally came to understand mental illness as both more complex, and more cinematic, than babbling Hoffman-Crowe Rain Man-John Nashisms. Shannon, best known for a run of wild-eyed sociopaths (Bug, Revolutionary Road), quite brilliantly pins down the normal in the not-so-normal, and vice versa: his Curtis is a practical man, already under pressure at work (something to do with a drill bit, cracking), who's struggling to make sense of what's happening to him; even while he obsessively goes about refashioning the storm shelter, we sense he's still well-adjusted enough to wonder why he's been led to these extremes, save possibly that he's following some vague primal instinct as his family's provider and protector, that this is a project that must be undertaken for them, at least.
Nichols gives us clues and red herrings alike - a chlorine leak; a numbed Kathy Baker as Curtis's mother, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was her son's age; sign language that, as in Michael Haneke's masterly Code Unknown, suggests what we have here is a deranging failure to communicate - yet his film is rooted, as though in the soil, by its portrait of ordinary madness: it's about the terror of waking up next to someone you love at four in the morning and seeing them shaking, and sweating, and bleeding, and knowing that you are powerless to do anything to help them.
In its very form, Take Shelter is prone to a kind of schizophrenia, poised as it is between mainstream horror and the modern American art movie. The effects, by the whizzkid Strause brothers (Skyline), grant Nichols' vision its levitating furniture and spectral strangers, its deafening lightning strikes. Yet the director's lineage - a protégé of David Gordon Green (George Washington), protégé of Terrence Malick before him - keeps coming through on screen, not just in the casting of the increasingly vital Chastain, The Tree of Life's floaty mom, but also in the way Take Shelter comes to gaze at nature, both in awe and in fear. As I mentioned earlier, Nichols gives stupendous, screen-filling sky: he's one of the few indie directors presently working who can bring themselves to look up from their own navels.
This time, though, he has the script to substantiate such visions, dramatising - in a resolutely unshowy fashion - those niggling quotidian horrors that might well drive a man on the ground into a state of derangement: the price of medication, a budget sheet slipping into the red, having to walk into your kitchen to tell a wife who possibly no longer cares that you no longer have a job to speak of. There is obvious metaphorical value in the sight of everyday Americans having to seek shelter from the storm, and the film's forecast is for worse weather to come. At all points, though, Nichols resists the temptation to promote Curtis, a hard-hatted canary in the economic coalmine, to the status of a soapboxing prophet, preaching to the downtrodden masses: he's just a guy, confused, disorientated, stressed, possibly sick with it.
Driving his daughter back from class one evening, Curtis pulls his car to the kerbside to observe a particularly violent squall playing out on the horizon, mumbling to himself "Is anyone seeing this?" We are, of course, and Take Shelter refuses any comfortable distinction between the character and those of us looking on; instead, it burrows onwards and inwards, taking us further into its protagonist's dark place and causing the viewer to worry how on earth we're all going to get out. That Nichols eventually finds an exit without shortchanging either his characters or the audience has to go down as one of the miracles of the cinemagoing year, yet the moral of this stark and utterly gripping film, flipping a Hollywood commonplace on its head, is terrifying: it could happen to you.
Take Shelter opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. A shorter version of this review will be published in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph.