April 18 2012 12:00 AM

Seek 'Shelter'; you'll find a great psychological thriller

Curtis (Michael Shannon) knows there’s something wrong, but he’s not sure exactly what it is. He hears thunder when there are no clouds in the sky.

He wakes up screaming from nightmares in which hundreds of birds swoop down upon him, oily rain falls and a seismic jolt shakes his house, causing his living room furniture to hang suspended in mid-air, like something out of “Inception.” Could these terrifying visions be premonitions, or are they merely warning signs that he’s losing touch with reality?

That’s the “Twilight Zone”-style premise of writer-director Jeff Nichols’ marvelous psychological thriller “Take Shelter.” 

Set in a small Ohio town that seems to have been brought to its knees by the recession, “Shelter” initially paints what looks like a comforting portrait of family life.

Curtis has a steady job in construction, a loving wife named Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a lovely 6-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).

But the closer we look, the more cracks we see in the picture: money is tight, so Samantha sells crafts on the weekends to raise extra cash; Hannah is hearing-impaired and needs surgery; Curtis’ mother (Kathy Baker in an electrifying cameo) is a paranoid schizophrenic who has spent decades in an institution.

Naturally, Curtis is beginning to wonder if he is headed in the same direction; after all, he is now 35, the same age his mom was when she was diagnosed.

Although he appears to be a mountain of a man, Shannon expertly plays against his size: Inside the body of a linebacker is someone being torn apart by fears he can’t express and questions he can’t answer. Curtis struggles to keep going, but his journey becomes more daunting with each new day.

Chastain provides a sensitive, insightful reading of Samantha, who clings to her faith as Curtis’ troubles become increasingly apparent. This riveting drama manages to tie the nerves in knots while breaking your heart at the same time.

‘Take Shelter’

Presented by East Lansing Film Society

7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday, April 20, Saturday, April 21 and Sunday, April 22

Wells Hall, Michigan State University

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, Wednesday, April 25 and Thursday, April 26

Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing

$8; $6 seniors; $3 students