Michael Shannon in Take Shelter: Everything's heavy underground 

What Lies Beneath

What Lies Beneath

Hoping to evade the ruinous demands of heredity, a hardworking father alienates his family while trying to protect its members from dangers they can't understand. Jessica Chastain stars as the man's supportive, haunted wife.

Quick: Does that TV Guide-ready thumbnail describe The Tree of Life, or Take Shelter?

Chastain is in both films — just two of the hundred or so movies that have put her name on marquees this year. But in Take Shelter, as a wife and mother named Samantha, she is more present and alert than she is in Terrence Malick's loosely woven Zen helix. The earlier movie calls on her to play maternity as sainthood, a task undermined by Malick's impressionistic storytelling and Brad Pitt's overpowering performance. Asked to render an almost literal earth mother, she never quite engages as a spiritual woman flattened out by mortal fears and masculine domination.

In writer-director Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, a rising red welt on the skin of American domestic horror, Chastain again worries over a family that's more fragile than anyone suspects. This time, the material gives her latitude to build something closer to a whole character, though again the husband dominates. There's an excellent reason for that, and for Samantha's grave concern: This stern paterfamilias is sinking irretrievably into madness.

That would be Curtis, the blue-collar father played by Michael Shannon with terrifying intensity and low volume. Eventually he will seethe and shake. He will howl to his friends, to his family, "There's a storm coming!" By that time, he has earned the release — and so have we. Because what makes Take Shelter a clammy, hand-wringing stress test of a movie is the ordinariness of its triggers. Yeah, dude, there's a storm coming — it's raining unemployment and debt out there. And who wouldn't find his sanity challenged by having to attend Lions Club dinners? When a health insurance bureaucrat of uncommon empathy tells Samantha how lucky she is that Curtis' coverage is comprehensive, you know you've just heard the equivalent of the Amityville house issuing its "get out" warning. You'd have to be Canadian not to feel a lurch in your gut.

"I just don't want to see you fuck up," Curtis' obliging lunk of a friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) tells him. Nichols is screenplay grammarian enough that, by this moment, we've seen that Curtis is well past fucking up. Having survived a childhood broken by a paranoid-schizophrenic mother (Kathy Baker) desperate not to remember, he is marking age 35 — the same age his mother was when she abandoned her children — with a series of Cormac McCarthy night terrors. When these intensify, he checks out a library book and identifies in himself several indicators of approaching mental illness. It's no spoiler to say that his grip on this reassuring self-awareness fails, and fails big.

To answer his apocalyptic visions and increasingly hallucinatory waking life, Curtis takes out a loan so he can add onto the old tornado shelter in his Ohio backyard. (The banker who advises against this risk is another horror-movie trope adapted to scare the shit out of anyone who has tried to balance a checkbook since 2008.) Spurred by a deadly chlorine spill in a neighboring community, he stocks the plumbed-out space with gas masks and Spaghetti-Os. The result: a fortress against toxic events real and mental, with no refuge from self-inflicted damage.

What Curtis doesn't do is tell Samantha his plans. Or what they've cost. Or that despite handfuls of sedatives, cyclones and zombies continue to infest his psyche. So at least until Take Shelter's final scene – yes, it's that kind of "wait, what?" movie, though executed with surgical dexterity – it's not only a thrilling descent into insanity but also the most brutally frightening Dr. Phil ever: one about deception and surprise in marriage, and the outer limits of wifely patience.

For most of its running time, Nichols' movie is a mocking corrective to The Tree of Life, a retort demonstrating the ways that bruising chaos trumps fleeting nirvana. We endure Curtis' nightmares with him and follow him down sterile free-clinic hallways as he seeks help, so there's no doubting his perspective. And even as fragile as he finally admits he might be, Curtis is driven by a certain throwback masculinity, one Brad Pitt's Tree of Life character would recognize. Take Shelter suggests in its final seconds that there's reason to stand by your man, even if he has lost his balance.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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