WHEN you’re as dim as DVD Letterbox, movies dealing in metaphor can be a struggle. ‘‘You mean she was meant to represent Syria’s struggle for independence? But she was an advertising executive in a romantic comedy!’’ More precisely, after years of interviewing directors and screenwriters, I’m probably the last to over-analyse composition and narrative subtleties. The cinematic truth is often simpler than first thought. More often than not the filmmaker will correct your mannered interpretation by saying ‘‘that’s all we could afford’’, or ‘‘the sun wasn’t shining as brightly as we needed that day’’.
The sun doesn’t shine much in Take Shelter (M, Sony, 157 min, $34.99), a gripping psychological drama by writer and director Jeff Nichols. The threatening black clouds and crackling lightning fill the screen and the mind and world of its subject, an American construction worker, Curtis (Michael Shannon).
In this film, the storms are protagonist and metaphor for what The New Yorker’s David Denby described as the ‘‘current moment of American unease’’. Most obviously it is a realist story of one working man’s struggle in middle America with a wife (the omnipresent Jessica Chastain), young daughter and middling job. But it’s so much more and the ‘‘American unease’’ is an apt description for the meat of this strong film, one of the best American independent films of the past two years.
Shannon is wonderful in the kind of role that in the wrong hands would have been hysterical. Curtis has concerns about his daughter’s deafness, his company’s impact on the local community and on the gathering storm. Shannon’s performance and Nichols’s direction accelerate the malaise into worry and then into panic in extremely well-calibrated examples of acting and screenwriting. So much so you suspect they had to film in sequence.
Nichols’s only mis-step perhaps is burning too slowly; the film is nearly two hours and focused very much on the unravelling of one man. Fortunately he shoots it so well and Shannon is supported so ably by Chastain, you care to see the conclusion. And what a stunning conclusion. Metaphor of it what you will.