It turns out Memphis rocker Ben Nichols, the lead singer of Lucero, might only be the second most talented person in his family. Nichols' younger brother, Jeff, is a filmmaker. Jeff Nichols' excellent first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, a family-feud story set in England, Arkansas, never played Memphis. But his even better second feature, Take Shelter, which premiered to strong notices at the Cannes Film Festival this summer, opens in Memphis this week, with his older brother's familiar voice, on the solo composition "Shelter," heard over the closing credits.
Nichols moves from his native Arkansas to rural Ohio for Take Shelter, which reunites him with his Shotgun Stories star, Michael Shannon. Shotgun Stories was in the tradition of early Terrence Malick, somewhat reminiscent of Malick's debut Badlands — marked by vibrantly natural cinematography and a patient, poetic tone. Take Shelter shares not only a lead actress (Jessica Chastain, apparently at Malick's own recommendation) and a producer with Malick's latest, The Tree of Life, but also sees Nichols, like Malick, surprisingly incorporating special effects and more stylized visuals.
Shannon is Curtis, a soft-spoken, blue-collar guy gifted with a lovely wife, Samantha (Chastain), and daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) and a nice, comfortable home.
"You got a good life," Curtis' friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him, with a hint of envy. "I think that's the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, that's good. That guy's doing something right."
But Curtis senses trouble. He's beset by dark visions — an ominous gathering storm, a yellow viscous rain, blackbirds flying in menacing formations. There is mental illness in his family — a mother (Kathy Baker) who abandoned him as a child and was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia — and Curtis fears that this is becoming his inheritance. He seeks help — from books, medicine, counseling — but the visions won't let him go. He's compelled to build a massive storm shelter behind his home. His family can't really afford to do this, but in Curtis' troubled mind they can't afford not to.
Shannon is a young veteran actor — under 40 but with more than 50 credits. You will recognize his face even if you don't recognize his name. He is one of the most curious and compelling actors we have at the moment. With his coal-black eyes, strong jaw, gravelly voice, and intense demeanor, he often plays troubled characters, but he's never had a role as rich as this, and Shannon responds with one of the year's very best performances.
The family has problems more tangible than Curtis' strange visions. The daughter is hearing-impaired and the family is trying to secure a cochlear implant surgery, which requires negotiating the thicket of health insurance. But having insurance requires that Curtis keep his job, which is imperiled by his perhaps faltering sanity.
We've seen plenty of sensitive, serious movies about mental illness before, and Take Shelter seems for a while like it could be another one of those. But Nichols is after something more unusual here — more poetic, more symbolic, more open-ended. This is a movie that manages to feel elemental and timeless yet utterly current, even topical. Nichols' story is both as old as Noah as as current as tomorrow's Wall Street Journal.
Like perhaps no movie in recent memory, Take Shelter captures an anxiety in the air, tapping into an unsettlingly recognizable sense of unease in modern American life — the fragility of employment, the uncertainty of health care, the burden of credit, the weight of worry, the fearsome responsibilities of parenthood amid everything else. And it does so with an impressive sleight of hand, packed into a tight little genre movie that you may not be able to shake.
Opening Friday, November 11th