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‘Take Shelter’

Where to take shelter when the end is nigh

by Giovanni Fazio

If there’s one thing that’s certain about predictions of the apocalypse, it’s that none of them have been correct to date. The mother of all end-of-the-world predictions was 2012 — according to all that Mayan calendar mumbo-jumbo — and yet, here we are.

Or at least, here is where we think we are. Perhaps the apocalypse did in fact happen, and I sit here deluded in some sort of “Jacob’s Ladder” purgatory, the rest of you all just figments of the past creating a simulacrum of life as I once knew it. Or maybe it’s me who’s the figment, existing only in your bardo dream.

But there’s the rub: How do you or I know that we’re actually alive and the outside world exists? Why, because our senses perceive it as real, of course. But, like a fried Tepco thermometer in a reactor core, if our basis for evaluating the world around us is malfunctioning, it becomes impossible to trust the accuracy of any input.

This very Philip K. Dick-ian question has inspired a lot of cinema lately — “Inception,” “Black Swan,” et al — and the latest contender is “Take Shelter,” a rather disturbing look at survivalist paranoia.

Michael Shannon (“The Runaways,” “Revolutionary Road”) plays an average Midwest American blue-collar family man named Curtis; he’s got a lovely wife (Jessica Chastain), a cute daughter (Tova Stewart), a good drinking buddy (Shea Whigham), and a bad case of recurring nightmares.

Curtis’ dreams include a mix of the biblically apocalyptic — tornadoes, vicious flocks of birds in blackened skies, animals going berserk — with more modern fears, such as a chemical-slimy yellow rain that infects everyone it touches. (This is an echo of one of the many viral Internet rumors regarding post-Fukushima fallout, actually.)

The poor guy wakes up in a cold sweat, but the fears prompted by his dreams linger with him during his waking hours. Soon he’s mortgaged his house to build an underground storm shelter stocked with canned food and gas masks, with a heavy lock on the door. If he gets his family down there, you get the distinct feeling they might not be coming back out.

Curtis’ increasingly irrational behavior alienates his friends and family, and visits to his doctor don’t help, but the fact that Curtis’ mother had been institutionalized seems key. “Take Shelter” holds out two prospects: It’s either a “Twilight Zone”-style modern-day Cassandra story about a guy who can see the future, or a highly disturbing realist portrait of schizophrenic breakdown. The beauty of the film is that it keeps you guessing till the last reel.

Actually, director Jeff Nichols’ biggest error is to provide us with an answer at film’s end; personally, I would happily have been left wondering whether Curtis’ future would be more like “The Road” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but I realize not everyone likes uncertainty. Nichols does make good use of the digital effects by Chris Wells’ team, making the surreal happenings emerge organically from the “real world”.

Shannon’s turn as crazed, abusive band manager/Svengali Kim Fowley in “The Runaways” was about the most electrifying performance to be seen in 2011. In “Take Shelter,” he’s less flamboyant, but clearly playing characters with a loose screw is his specialty. He communicates the loving-father side of his character well enough that when he goes to pieces, the viewer feels a real pang of concern. Best is the stoic, work-boot and Levi’s masculinity he embodies, insisting to his wife that nothing’s wrong even as batlike hallucinations sweep out of the sky to attack him. Chastain, for her part, gets to show a little more spunk than usual in the good-wife role.

“Take Shelter” is a decent portrait of a particularly American strain of paranoid fantasy; whether it’s the libertarian nut-jobs who stockpiled vast caches of ammunition in the belief that the Obama administration would ban the sale of firearms as a precursor to imposing totalitarian rule, or the Nevada blogger who wrote of how she was terrified to open her windows or leave her home, certain that Fukushima radiation would give her instant and fatal cancer, there’s this sense that hoarding and hermiting can beat the end days. As end-world scenarios proliferate — viral outbreaks, terrorist nukes, rising sea levels, resource scarcity/social breakdown — no doubt the backyard bunkers will, too.

Still, even in the maddest imaginings — the Rapture, anyone? — there’s something to be said for at least taking charge of one’s fate. It certainly seems smarter than sitting on a major fault line and making no preparations whatsoever. Sound familiar?