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Cinema Signal: Fine arthouse material with a flaw or two. Intense, scary.
. "Take Shelter"

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"), is the capable breadwinner of his family, which consists of wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, "The Help") and their little six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who is deaf. They represent to us a loving and solid family in Ohio struggling with modest income and the costs of special needs. Dad's salary as a crew chief for a sand-mining company doesn't cover it and Samantha supplements his income as a part-time seamstress.

Curtis works out in the fields with Kyle (Ray McKinnon, "The Blind Side"), his best friend, as a two-man drilling crew. Much of his and Samantha's family life is spent learning sign language and teaching it to Hannah.

But, things aren't as under control as they may appear. In the opening scene, in fact, Curtis is standing outside his front door intently looking up at the sky. The camera cuts to a view from behind him, revealing the immense, threatening thunder cloud that has him mesmerized. It fills the frame with a dark, brooding majesty as it slowly begins to emit rain. Nothing too overwhelming, but there's a smell to this rain, and a color. It will be no ordinary rain storm. But, then, is it real?

We will soon see that it's not -- that Curtis is suffering delusions that play out with increasing violence in his dreams and troubling regularity during his waking hours. They are frightening, threatening psychodramatic sequences of hurt and mutilation.

To Curtis, the images in his brain are foretelling an iminent disaster, signs of a deepening paranoia. He hears the thunder claps, sees strange bird formations, and goes berserk when his dog -- in a dream -- attacks Hannah. His fear is so great that the dream will come true that he builds a pen for the animal outside. But the fear doesn't subside. He sees strangers attempting to break into his home to hurt Hannah -- again an hallucination.

Same on the job. When he hears a thunderclap while working, he stops. But, Ned hasn't heard a thing. No one else shares his sensory perceptions, and he's catching on that if he can't control them, it would be wise to conceal them.

His awareness leads him to secretly seek medical help for the dreams. At the same time, though, he's convinced that he and his family are in imminent danger. He takes out a loan from the bank in order to expand the small storm celler on the property in order to be prepared.

His increasingly strange behavior convinces everyone -- including his brother -- that he is losing it. The bedrock of his marriage begins to split when he finally discloses to Samantha what he's been up to. He loses his job when his boss learns that he borrowed company equipment for his expansion project. And, when he visits his mother (Kathy Baker) in her assisted living apartment we learn that mental illness runs in the family.

Curtis' fears and anxieties comes to a boil when Curtis takes on the town in a screaming tirade about the impending storm and the need for preparation.

What makes his worsening condition a matter of deep concern and attention is that, by this time, we're looking for a way that this family might yet weather the storm of mental deterioration. We dearly want to see them come out of this with the love and fierce dedication that has warmed us to them.

Shannon has this natural ability to keep an audience on edge -- something within that you don't want to watch when it rises to the surface. His restraint doesn't calm you. When he explodes -- and he surely will -- well, then we'll see. Here, he capitalizes on this suggestive edginess to create the tension of uncertainty in an everyman facing the crippling of all he holds dear.

Chastain embodies her capable, fully involved wife without a doubt or hesitation. She's a fully involved partner in Curtis' life, when it's good and when a threat hovers over it. She delivers the role of the fully engaged wife with impressive integrity and pragmatic, forgiving force.

In order to sit through this, let it be said, you have to have the capacity to deal with ever-increasing bleakness and quite a big dose of it in these two hours of running time. To those who can do that, you're in for a galvanizing and intelligent drama with two award-worthy performances.

Visually, the work is very capable under Adam Stone's cinematographic leadership. The CGI rendering of Curtis' dark cloud and bird formations are story points well-crafted to dramatic needs without overdoing it. Much rests on the balance between realism and fantasy and the digital team hits the mark. I was particularly impressed with that beginning scene from behind Curtis as he stands spellbound by the thunderhead. The grey natural light that lines his head with low-key detail creates outstanding dimension and separation.

One final word for those who have seen "Take Shelter," with the warning that it is a

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Michael Shannon and Tova Stewart
As Curtis LaForche and daughter Hannah
Living in a paranoid's dreamscape.

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