Plagued by a series of visions, a young husband and father (Michael Shannon) questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

Haunting tale unhinged by heavy-handed symbolism.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: When it surfaces—which is almost instantly—you will want to love the central metaphor director Jeff Nichols sets up in Take Shelter, his lugubrious, heavy-footed follow up to Shotgun Stories. You might try to ignore the distinct female profile carved into the bottom of the massive storm cloud troubling Michael Shannon in the opening shot, so badly will you want to take it all seriously, so urgently are the droning, tonal chords of the score imploring you to do just that. Over the course of Take Shelter’s interminable two hours you will you find your love for the metaphor tested against the film’s. And then you will lose.

A wave of knowing laughter and murmurs arose when the lights went down in Park City’s cavernous Library Theater: Take Shelter had been sold to Sony Pictures Classics the previous evening, and Nichols had obviously scrambled to splice the distributor’s bumper onto the beginning of his film for that night’s screening. The imprimatur marked the logical end of the buzz that built around Take Shelter from its first screening; that morning the press screening had overflowed, while Mad Bastards played to a handful of journalists in the next theatre. We can be a sheep-ish bunch, I thought; nobody wants to be out of the know. Few films can live up to the intensity of hype Sundance can generate, and no amount of hype can will a good film into being.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a husband and father who works as a contractor in his small Ohio town. (Many of this year’s young American directors seem to have moved inland, as if the Midwest is where the new authenticity can be found.) 'You’ve got a good life, Curtis," his friend tells him, and it does seem that way: His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, an indelible foil to Shannon’s trademark intensity) is lovely and though his young daughter is deaf, it seems that a crucial surgery is finally going to come through. And yet Curtis can’t stop having biblically awful dreams—swarms of birds attack, dogs go rabid, strangers and then loved ones turn into murderous, child-stealing zombies. When awake he keeps seeing those damn storm clouds overhead, a waking, cumulous nightmare that seems to follow him around like Pigpen’s filthy aura. Soon he can’t tell when he’s awake and when he’s dreaming, and he becomes paranoid about everything from the family dog to his ethereal wife.

Nichols begins wide open with that initial shot of Curtis eying the elements (portrait shots of disordered man dwarfed by still, soothing nature recur) but narrows his ace-in-the-hole question—Is Curtis’s environment or his mind turning against him?—fairly quickly. After one of his nightmares causes him to wet the bed Curtis hits the library to read up on mental illness and then asks his mother—who was institutionalised with paranoid schizophrenia when she was his age—for pointers. (If only Black Swan’s Nina Sayers had self-diagnosed.) He tries to hide his condition at first, a plan foiled by his insistence on building the mother of all storm shelters in his backyard.

The rest is mostly Nichols working his metaphor to the point of total, turgid defeat. Curtis’s madness is the coming storm, one that threatens to destroy everything he has built, and hardly a moment in Take Shelter will let you forget it. Notable are a couple of scenes that manage to slip out from under the title’s portentous banner and conjure a sense of what it might be like to experience Curtis’s terror in life and not a distended psychodrama: Reaching out for help, he marches into a doctor’s office—as so many of us do now—armed with the psychiatric equivalent of a Cosmo quiz; later the lightning he alone sees is reflected on his face, as though he’s watching himself inside of a hallucination. Shannon is valiant throughout a film that will ideally be cut by a good 20 minutes before release, but even Sundance’s sympathetic audience laughed with derision when he was forced to have his climactic, frothing, very public meltdown. A torturous, face-your-fears finale was still to come, however; the joke was on us.