Jeff Nichols' sublime Take Shelter is a trenchant, contemporary American horror story, which means it is not about ghosts or demons but waiting for the other shoe to drop. More specifically, it's about expecting dead blackbirds to plummet out of the sky (as they actually did on New Year's Eve in Arkansas) and oil to come down in the rain (as it effectively did last year off Louisiana's shore). Even more specifically, it's about knowing you're losing your mind to apocalyptic expectations but being unable to stop worrying about them, because they are too immediate and terrifying. It reminded me of FDR's inaugural promise, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and how that bromide is comforting only if you've never felt yourself going mad. Take Shelter is not a political picture; it takes the national temperature, and finds delirious fever. More than three decades after the hopeful sky-watching in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here is a movie that feels like Richard Dreyfuss' mashed-potato-sculpting scene distended to a two-hour daymare. This time, what the hero sees is looming thunderheads. He responds by expanding his backyard tornado shelter into an underground ark. 

Such material could play as condescending or grotesque (Evan Almighty starring Glenn Beck!) but is instead sensitively shaped by Nichols, who directed the under-appreciated Shotgun Stories and is working with a crew of longtime David Gordon Green confederates, together realizing the adult visions their mentor cannot or will not explore on his Apatow digression. So Take Shelter is horror in the costume of regional indie cinema, or maybe vice versa. Aptly, it stars Michael Shannon, a tender performer with the face of a maniac. Shannon's bug-eyed visage seems built to be stretched into a rictus of agony, and the movie takes full advantage. As the protagonist, Curtis, an Ohio gravel driller, he's visited by a series of dreams (filmed by cinematographer Adam Stone in serenely sinister panning shots) that inexorably escalate into a ruinous squall. But even as hallucinations edge Curtis toward ranting end-times prophet, he remains fundamentally doubtful. He knows schizophrenia runs in his family, and instead of becoming more certain in his foreboding, he is self-diagnosing, torn between competing anxieties. He might be right or he might be insane.

What he is, in fact, is a good man—something hard to find in the movies. "You got a good life, Curtis," says his best friend (Shea Whigham) in a pickup truck heart-to-heart early in the movie. "I think that's the best compliment you can give a man: Take a look at his life and say, 'That's good.'" What makes Take Shelter more than a horror movie or another realist trinket—what makes it a remarkable study of everyday life in a declining empire—is that its central characters are not merely pleasant but actively virtuous. Both Curtis and his wife, Samantha (played by Jessica Chastain in the standout performance of her standout year), are exhilaratingly, devastatingly loyal to each other and their young daughter. They are forced into impossible straits—but what makes their fate so affecting is not their distress; it's their decisions. It is easy to sneer that, as privileged Americans, we deserve whatever comeuppance we get, but Take Shelter brings a reminder that, whatever our fate, we still have the capacity to be righteous. R.

91 SEE IT: Take Shelter opens Friday at Fox Tower.