No film has tapped as deeply into America’s growing paranoia more than Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter.” A masterful work that cleverly uses an everyman’s descent into madness as an effective metaphor for all that ails America. Health care, joblessness, terrorism, climate change, you name it, Nichols subtly touches on it within the framework of an old-fashioned sci-fi thriller in which the mood affects you every bit as much as the story.

No film has tapped as deeply into America’s growing paranoia more than Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter.” A masterful work that cleverly uses an everyman’s descent into madness as an effective metaphor for all that ails America. Health care, joblessness, terrorism, climate change, you name it, Nichols subtly touches on it within the framework of an old-fashioned sci-fi thriller in which the mood affects you every bit as much as the story.


The unease Nichols and leading man Michael Shannon create is almost unbearable at times. Your nerves become on edge; your mind deliriously confused by what is real and what is not. And it’s what you don’t see that frightens you most. That’s because the LaForche family of rural Ohio is probably just like you, living paycheck to paycheck with no margin for the unexpected; fearful that at any minute the other shoe may drop. And when it does drop, watch out.


Like the best of Hitchcock and Rod Serling, Nichols knows the ideal way to scare the pants off of you is by putting a common man in an extraordinary situation. In this case, Shannon’s dull but steady Curtis LaForche. All he wants from life is to make his beautiful wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain from “The Help”), and their hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (6-year-old Tova Stewart), safe and secure. And so far, he’s been succeeding at it thanks to a well-paying job at the local sand mine.


Then, everything begins to fall apart. Without warning, Curtis finds himself tormented by recurring apocalyptic dreams so vivid and real that he views them more as a portent than a psychosis. Almost always, these visions involve either dark, swirling storm clouds or thick, black swirls of swooping, predatory birds. Are they omens or merely hallucinations signaling the onset of the schizophrenia that inflicted his mother (Kathy Baker) when she was the same age as him? Either way, Curtis is leaving nothing to chance, as he becomes obsessed with building a tricked-out storm shelter at the edge of a vast field behind their home.


Like a lot of Americans, Curtis’ paranoia erodes all modes of rational thinking. His priorities to his wife, employer and handicapped daughter grow disturbingly askew. He secures a loan he can’t afford, he angers his boss, betrays his best friend (Shea Whigham) and unloads his beloved dog on his brother because he fears the animal will attack him. He secretly seeks help at the free clinic, which is too ill-equipped to help him beyond prescribing a sedative that carries a hefty co-pay of nearly $50. And as Curtis digs himself in deeper and deeper, he risks losing his job, along with the health care benefits needed to pay for his daughter’s cochlear implant.


If this is beginning to sound melodramatic, it’s not. In fact, Nichols and Shannon do just the opposite, filling “Take Shelter” with unspoken desperation. It’s highly effective, too. As are the performances by Shannon (an Oscar nominee for “Revolutionary Road”) and Chastain, as both strive to keep it real as madness threatens both their marriage and their sanity. The amount of empathy each actor garners is almost as impressive as their ability to resist going over the top.


Kudos too to Nichols’ judicious use of special effects, which never overshadow the story, only enhance it, as the film charges toward a wonderfully ambiguous conclusion that hauntingly reminds us that all we need to fear is fear itself.


TAKE SHELTER (R for language). Cast includes Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 3.5 stars out of 4.