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MOVIE REVIEW: Chastain shines in 'Take Shelter'

Take Shelter

(R)

3 out of 4 stars

In last week's "Margin Call" we witnessed the birth of the Wall Street meltdown which led to the current recession. While "Take Shelter" has nothing to do with the financial world or white-collar villains, it says everything about what's followed in the "Margin Call" wake.

We've yet to reach bottom or clearly identify all of the ripples that began in 2008 -- a point not lost on sophomore writer/director Jeff Nichols. This movie speaks to the fear and disillusionment felt by millions of Americans who've seen their hopes, dreams and savings disappear through no fault of their own and how such life-altering events play on one's psyche.

At the opening, Ohioan Curtis (Michael Shannon) seems like the least likely guy to freak out and become a Chicken Little. He's gainfully employed as a sand miner, is married to the gorgeous, infinitely patient Sam (Jessica Chastain) and is the father of the beautiful, deaf Hannah (Tova Stewart). The biggest challenge facing the family is picking out the beach house for their annual Carolina vacation.

But then we see that Curtis is preoccupied with what's going on in the skies; ominous clouds, migrating birds, lightning and thunder no one else seems to see or hear and oil falling as rain. He's also having disturbing dreams that on occasion manifest themselves physically. He becomes obsessed with expanding the storm shelter in the backyard and, without consulting Sam, spends a bunch of money they don't really have in order to do so.

Because he's growing more paranoid and putting distance between him and his family, Curtis assumes (like his mother 25 years earlier) that's he's mentally disturbed but continues to work feverishly on the shelter. Is he a madman or a prophet?

While it does sport a few Stephen King-like jolts, Nichols' movie doesn't have a villain or a bogeyman or any other typical horror movie trappings. It's not quite a thriller, either, although Nichols unravels the narrative as if it were.

In the crucial third act, Nichols brings the maelstrom to a head and lends Curtis' visions some level of credence before falling short with a frustrating non-ending. He recovers with the real ending but is about 30 minutes late in doing so. Through the attrition of its two hour running time and frequent snail's pace, "Take Shelter" loses some of its wallop but never any of its dread.

This is the second collaboration for Nichols and Shannon (the superb "Shotgun Stories" being the first) and are currently filming "Mud," due out in 2013. They have the makings of a long-term Scorsese-de Niro-like partnership and have already developed their own creative shorthand. With his gangly frame, big eyes and gaunt features, Shannon was a good (some may say too good) choice for Curtis and could easily get an Oscar nomination for his work.

"Take Shelter" is just one of the seven 2011 movies to feature Chastain who, in less than a year, has established herself as the Meryl Streep of her generation. Looking like a paler, more angular version of Julia Roberts, Chastain is mesmerizing and disappears completely into every character she plays. Remember the ditzy blonde in "The Help?" That was her. Before her career is over, Chastain could easily eclipse Katherine Hepburn's record four Oscar wins; she's that good.

Again like "Margin Call," "Take Shelter" is a very good movie that perfectly reflects our times, which is both a blessing and a curse. Movies are supposed to be a reflection of life but when films like these reflect so well the bad times that are still with us, people -- even stalwart art-house types -- tend to steer clear. (Sony Classics)