A man stands and looks at the brooding Ohio skies. Clouds gather, darken and swell, before a torrent of oily raindrops begin to fall. As openings go, it’s an arresting, tone-setting triumph. And, as the title of Jeff Nichols’ insidious psychological thriller suggests, you’d better start looking for cover…
The man in questions is Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, star of Nichols’ 2007 debut Shotgun Stories), a crew supervisor for a Midwest sand-mining company. On the surface, life is good. He’s married to the beautiful Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and they have a six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).
Yet this family man is plagued by moments like the opening scene – nightmares and hallucinations that leave him sweating and screaming when he wakes up. Zombie-like creatures rattle the windows, birds swoop in ominous formations, the furniture floats Inception-like… and the doom-mongering dreams become more and more intense. Worse still, when he imagines the family dog savaging his arm, he feels the pain for real.
Continually haunted by these apocalyptic visions, Curtis’ grip on his sanity begins to loosen – albeit in more subtle, slow-burning increments than the scenery-wolfing norm. What emerges is a beguiling mix of Polanski-esque psychological terror and Loach-like social realism.
Call it blue-collar horror if you like, but Curtis’ disturbances could be read as a manifestation of the very real, very relatable fear he feels about supporting his family through the economic recession.
Aided by the poetic, often Malick-esque visuals – brilliantly realised for a low-budget film – it’s a brave idea, boldly executed. The only downside is an overlong final act that lacks the courage to call time.
Shannon, who rarely seems to get a lead in a film that clearly matches his talent, absolutely shines here (not least the scene where he explodes in a torrent of invective at a community gathering). Meanwhile, Chastain neatly complements her The Tree Of Life work, again playing a loving wife of a difficult husband with warmth and grace (plus a touch more grit).
But you could argue the real star is Nichols, whose control of mood, sense of setting and handling of themes (family, community, security) is for the most part first-rate. See this, and await his next film impatiently.
A visionary thriller, anchored by a performance of tornado force from Michael Shannon. Provocative and evocative, it’s one of the best American indies of 2011.