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“Fall Out Boy”

Review: “Take Shelter”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

OSCAR SEASON IS upon us and the great Michael Shannon as Curtis in John Nichols’ nerve-wracking new film “Take Shelter” shouldn’t lose his seat amongst the usual suspects – DiCaprio, Clooney, and Pitt – when the 2011 Academy Awards convene next year.  Whether he’s playing Nelson Van Elden, the repressed Protestant and Federal Prohibition agent on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” or the wild-eyed prophet in “Revolutionary Road” (2008), Shannon is hands-down the most electrifying actor on screen today and “Take Shelter” is his tour-de-force.

But Shannon will also break your heart in part because this brilliant examination of mental illness in an age of American anxiety refuses to pin him down as either a schizo or a Tiresias.  Either way, his family and neighbors begin to worry when Curtis LaForche, a faithful husband, father and hard-worker in his heartland community, begins to build a panic room out back.  “Missed you at church this morning, Curtis,” says a neighbor to which he replies flatly (his mind, in this film, always someplace else): “I’m thinking of cleaning up that storm shelter out back.”

What prompts his growing panic are hair-raising nightmares in which his dog Red bites him, his deaf daughter Hannah is snatched by shadowy figures, and his wife Samantha (this year’s ingénue Jessica Chastain) menaces him with a kitchen knife.  The unifying theme in all of Curtis’s dreams is persecution: ominous storm clouds rolling in and swaths of dive-bombing birds like Hitchcock’s birds except on Prednisone.  After checking out Understanding Mental Illness from the local library, he visits his mother (Kathy Baker) whose own paranoid schizophrenia led her to a lifetime inside a health-care facility.  “There was always some panic that took hold of me,” she tells Curtis, “people listening to me.”  Like mother, like son?  You be the judge.

Yet “Take Shelter” isn’t exactly a thriller as it aims ultimately for the kind of ambiguity normally forbidden on the big screen.  As director Nichols (who also cast Shannon in 2007’s “Shotgun Stories”) recently explained: “We carry a lot of anxiety and fear and stress about our lives and the world around us staying on track and I thought that was something a lot of people could identify with and I thought it was worth making a film about.”  Worth it, indeed.  Are Curtis’s portentous dreams the work of a madman or an everyman prophet?  Only the film’s dazzling last scene points toward a possible answer and like Shannon’s wrenching performance, it’s impossible to shake.