It'll no longer come as a surprise to any screen junkie that Michael Shannon gives good man on the edge.
From his disturbed veteran in William Friedkin’s paranoid Bug, to his unhinged turns in Revolutionary Road, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, he’s made a career of playing men who could be described as a few dozen sandwiches short of anything resembling a picnic.
So what’s most impressive about his performance here as Curtis, a family man plagued by apocalyptic hallucinations, is the compelling humanity at its core.
Rather than being a man we’re afraid of, this is a man we’re afraid for, and moreover a man for whom we desperately root. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (reuniting with Shannon from Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ 2007 debut) steeps his audience in the same atmosphere of dread as his protagonist – from the first queasy shots of Curtis amid an apocalyptic storm, we’re locked into his mindset.
The dream ends, but the waking nightmare is only beginning. As dreams become hallucinations and Curtis’ fears begin to bleed into everyday life, his erratic behaviour mystifies his wife (Jessica Chastain) and jeopardises his job.
It’s here that Shelter’s allegorical aspect comes in – the desperation to protect your family from an unpredictable environment isn’t far from the plight of many a parent in post-recession America. But it’s the psychosis question that grips the hardest – are Curtis’ visions of doom a prophecy?
Or a symptom of the same paranoid schizophrenia that crippled his mother (Kathy Baker)? Shannon’s appeal aside, it’s the level-headedness afforded him by Nichols’ script that keeps us on his side. He does everything right, from researching his symptoms in the library to pursuing a professional diagnosis.
There are few more frightening prospects than knowing you are losing your mind, and watching Curtis’ quiet, methodical struggle to cling on is as affecting an experience as it is disturbing. And make no mistake, it is disturbing – one late scene involving Chastain and a knife leaves a particular chill.
True, the deliberately ambiguous final beat is perhaps a shade too opaque to truly resonate. But then this is a film more interested in posing questions than providing answers; an atmospheric and haunting character study that pivots on Shannon’s devastating turn.