When “Take Shelter” played at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, audiences could be forgiven for being a little spooked.
The taut psychological drama, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, stars Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) as a Midwestern family man who, plagued by apocalyptic visions, begins to build a storm shelter for his family. The task turns into an obsession, eventually risking the loss of his job, his health and the loved ones he sought to protect in the endeavor.
Throughout “Take Shelter,” Shannon’s character, Curtis LaForche, sees an oncoming storm, a swirling mass of clouds and funnels that drip ominous rust-colored rain. When viewers encountered the movie in Toronto, many had just escaped Hurricane Irene as it bore up the East Coast; the effect of walking from the theater into a windy day much like the one in the movie struck many audience members as uncanny, if not downright unsettling.
“This question’s been coming from a lot of people: ‘What about all these storms?’ ” Nichols said in the lounge of the Toronto hotel where Shannon joined him for an interview. “And my only answer to that is, ‘They just keep coming.’ ”
“Take Shelter,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens in Washington on Friday, doesn’t readily fit into a neat cinematic genre. Its story is firmly grounded in reality — Curtis works at a sand mine in Ohio, where he and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) are raising their young daughter in a modest suburban home.
“The great thing about being in one of Jeff’s movies is your character always has a job,” said Shannon, who also starred in Nichols’s 2007 debut, “Shotgun Stories,” set on a Southern fish farm. “He’s not trying to create some alternate universe that doesn’t exist with a bunch of billionaires having a party in a hot tub.”
But alongside that firmly rooted mid-American vernacular, “Take Shelter” features surreal visual effects, such as the oncoming disaster and Curtis’s dreams of birds falling out of the sky.
As a mash-up of regional realism and speculative fiction, “Take Shelter” is part of a trend this year that included “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” at Sundance and, later, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” — all films that, while set in the recognizable world of the present day, dealt with themes of paranoia, an encroaching unearthly force and existential dread.
“It’s crazy,” Nichols said of the coincidence. “We’re all working in a vacuum from one another. I don’t know those filmmakers.” Noting that he started the script for “Take Shelter” in 2008 — an era he described as “post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-everything” — Nichols said, “Everybody always thinks they’re working at the end of times, you know, but it’s really just our arrogance as human beings thinking that we’re not just specks in some timeline.”
With its brown raindrops, Curtis’s tenuous hold on his job and the couple’s desperation to get an ear operation for their deaf daughter, “Take Shelter” often plays like a parable of today’s environmental and economic times.
But although Nichols — who was born in Arkansas and lives in Austin — began the project as a meditation on free-floating, generalized anxiety, it became a far more personal endeavor. When he started the film, he had just gotten married to his wife, Missy, a project manager at Texas Monthly.
“Being in my first year of marriage . . . I was just figuring out, ‘Well, what does marriage mean and what does it mean to be committed and how do you make a marriage work? Why do some work and most not work?’ Those were just personal questions I was trying to answer on my own, and they kind of found their way into this story. For me, they became the heart of the story, [because] if Curtis ever makes a mistake in this movie, it’s not opening up from the beginning and sharing his fears with his wife.”
Indeed, what seems initially to be the portrait of a man battling his own demons eventually becomes just as intense a depiction of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage, the survival of which finally comes down to one of life’s simplest gestures: turning the handle of a door.
Although Shannon related to Curtis’s plight both as a partner and a father (he recently had a baby with his longtime girlfriend), he noted that Nichols wrote in details that gave the character even more layers.
“It’s mentioned very quickly, but Curtis says that his father passed away recently,” Shannon explained. “So there’s also that element, [that] your role model or example is no longer there and you really are in the driver’s seat as far as being the patriarch of the family. That was something I could identify with, because my father had passed away not too long before I started working on the film. So, combined with being a recent dad, I didn’t have to look too far outside myself to tap into that dilemma.”
As Curtis’s background and emotional drives come into clearer focus throughout “Take Shelter,” Nichols ratchets up the stakes accordingly, until viewers are on the edge of their seats — not questioning whether the world will end, but whether the couple’s marriage will make it. What began as a study in inchoate collective anxiety about an imponderably bleak future turned out to be a suspenseful, finely crafted meditation on intimacy, for the filmmaker and audience alike.
“I think it’s in our human nature to process anxiety, and some do it better than others,” Nichols said. “What the movie really is about is a different way of processing that. [The way] you process those feelings is, you’ve got to turn to the person standing next to you and say, ‘This terrifies me.’ And see if they’re still there.”
opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Bethesda Row and AMC Shirlington.