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Ann Hornaday on ‘Take Shelter’ and the American paranoid style

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In an already jittery year at the movies, “Take Shelter” arrives like a quiet storm, its masterfully calibrated tale of suspense and incipient terror uncannily attuned to its place and our time.

Audiences were treated to a richly imagined story of apocalyptic dread last summer with “Another Earth” (by Georgetown graduates Mike Cahill and Brit Marling), and looming dourly on the horizon are “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Melancholia,” movies suffused with similar feelings of doom and burbling panic.

But “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as a Midwestern couple caught up in escalating forces they can’t control, redefines the American paranoid style in cinema, taking it from the science-fiction movies, horror films and political thrillers where it has traditionally resided and reinvigorating it with a bracing dose of realism.

Possessing the same spooky mood and, occasionally, speculative elements of its brethren, this superbly written, rigorously realized movie takes its most potent cues from real life in the early 21st century, tapping into anxieties and impulses that seem to be deepening in real time as the movie unspools.

The fact that “Take Shelter” so accurately captures its place and era is all the more uncanny considering that Nichols began writing it in 2008, a time he recently described as “post-Katrina, post-everything,” when economic collapse was imminent but not yet fully felt. As “Take Shelter” opens, Shannon’s character, Curtis LaForche, is working at a sand mine in Ohio, living with his wife, Samantha (Chastain), and their 6-year-old daughter in a modest ranch home on the outskirts of town.

It’s a typical tableau of working-middle-class scrimping and saving, marred only by the ominous drops of brown rain, swirling storm clouds and flocks of birds that mass weirdly in the sky. When Curtis begins to prepare for what is surely a coming disaster, he decides to build a storm shelter, a project that swiftly becomes an obsession and metaphor for life swerving dangerously out of balance.

Although Nichols wrote “Take Shelter” after Katrina, the bizarre natural events that punctuate the movie assume only more resonance in the wake of the BP oil spill, the Texas wildfires, random earthquakes and hurricanes so strong they flood Vermont. (“Is anyone seeing this?” Curtis desperately asks at one point in “Take Shelter.” Every morning on the Weather Channel, buddy.)

At a time when communities not far from Curtis’s Ohio home town are grappling with the environmental and health effects of hydraulic fracturing, it’s not a stretch to question whether that brown rain is somehow connected to the drilling Curtis does for a living.

But if viewers suspect that industrial desecration may play a role in Curtis’s plight, they’re just as likely to envy him his solid, well-paying job, which will come into high-stakes play when the LaForches seek an operation for their deaf daughter. No movie in recent memory is as strongly grounded in the economic lives of its characters as “Take Shelter,” from the sewing work Samantha takes in to be able to afford their summer beach rental to their nearly $50 co-pay at their specialist’s office (not since “As Good as It Gets” has a movie so accurately captured the wearying, white-knuckle strains of modern health care).

With its touches of supernaturalism and off-kilter feeling of foreboding, “Take Shelter” recalls such classics of cinematic paranoia as “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and the eeriest installments of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” But Nichols is far less interested in monsters and speculative what-ifs than in giving contemporary life a gentle but provocative spin. In the Rust Belt America of razor-thin financial margins, the tiniest blip could mean total ruin: Who needs intergalactic threats or allegorical boogeymen when the mere loss of health benefits can bring on a personal armageddon?

Indeed, if its surrealism places “Take Shelter” in the ranks of those films — along with “Another Earth” and “Melancholia” — its realism puts it more in league with a movie that, on its face at least, couldn’t be more different. Earlier this year, writer-director Tom McCarthy explored middle-class desperation in “Win Win,” a comedy with plenty of heartwarming laughs, but one that was just as alert as “Take Shelter” to the world around it. In that film, Paul Giamatti played an elder-care lawyer driven to (comically) criminal behavior out of worry that he can’t provide adequately for his family; Curtis LaForche takes similarly extreme, albeit more psychologically fraught, measures to protect his wife and child. The movies may be wildly different in temperament and tone, but they occupy the same psychic space, deftly examining questions of security, responsibility and what it means to be a man.

“Take care of your family,” Curtis’s brother tells him at one point. “Handle your business.” Of course, men and women everywhere are finding it increasingly difficult to perform even those basic duties, a wrenching fact that “Take Shelter” acknowledges with acute insight, imagination and, in the film’s deliciously confounding epilogue, a fragile sense of hope. Only a film as firmly rooted in reality as “Take Shelter” could send viewers out of the theater so eager to linger in the imponderable realm it creates.

Take Shelter

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(118 minutes, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row and AMC Shirlington) is rated R for some profanity.

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