Curtis LaForche is having terrible dreams. Something awful is coming; he doesn't know what, exactly, but he can feel its gathering force. Looking out over the fields around his home in blue-collar Ohio, he sees huge thunder clouds piling up on the horizon. A thick greasy rain pours down out of the sky. But no one else sees these things. Is Curtis losing his mind?
Take Shelter is a dark mystery that remains dark and mysterious, and harrowing, right up to the end, when it knocks you sideways. It's a horror movie, of a sort, but the source of its horror is subterranean, hidden, and all the more frightening for that.
The film is mightily powered by a star performance, by Michael Shannon, that's a model of compact technical mastery. His Curtis is a man who has it all: a secure job as a crew chief for a mining company and the devotion of his stay-at-home wife, Samantha (the understandably ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), and their six-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). But his mounting fear of whatever it is that's bearing down on him and his world begins to derail his life; and as it spirals into obsession, Shannon, a virtuoso of grim instability, assembles a complex depiction of a man torn by love and fear and an especially tormenting doubt. (Curtis' mother succumbed to schizophrenia in her thirties; he is now 35.)
Although money is tight, and there may be big medical bills ahead if Hannah can get a cochlear-implant operation, Curtis takes out a large bank loan in order to fortify a backyard storm shelter and stock it with canned goods and gas masks. His wife and neighbors—especially his work buddy Dewart, played with nicely layered concern by Shea Wigham—are baffled by his increasingly irrational behavior. But this only turns Curtis ever more inward, and spurs his determination.
The movie employs digital effects to swell its foreboding mood; but director Jeff Nichols, who also wrote the script, stays focused on the story's precarious human relationships. The blackening clouds, veined with lightning, and a wave of birds tacking frantically across the sky make Curtis' world—the one only he can see—a genuinely scary place. We feel his panic.
Toward the end, a faint light appears at the end of the dark tunnel Curtis is traversing. Even he can see it. But will he ever reach it?
Showtime's The Big C has set a high bar for cancer comedy. The show's lead character, Cathy, played by Laura Linney, has been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, a death sentence from which there seems to be no reprieve. But this gloomy fate is essentially only a linchpin, and it allows humor to prevail in Cathy's determination to start living what's left of her life to the fullest, and in the supporting characters' eccentric responses to her plight.
The new movie 50/50 negotiates a trickier dynamic. Here, a young Seattle radio producer named Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to a doctor for back pain and is suddenly informed that he has cancer, at an advanced stage. He is naturally appalled: "I don't smoke, I don't drink. I recycle." But there's hope: Adam has a 50-50 chance of beating the disease. The doctor sends him into chemotherapy, where he meets two fellow patients, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall) who are managing to mine some laughs from their situation. Meanwhile, Adam's loyal pal Kyle (Seth Rogen) attempts to boost his stricken friend's spirits by urging him to carry on and enjoy life, as if his affliction were a passing inconvenience. Then there's Adam's sleepover girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a painter of dreadful pictures; he gallantly offers her an easy out if she wants to bail, but she vows to stick by him. The last person Alan informs of his illness is his smothering mom, Diane (Anjelica Huston), who immediately wants to move in and tend to him—an alarming prospect. His father, Richard (Serge Houde), presents no problem: he has already halfway vanished into the fog of Alzheimer's.
The indeterminate nature of Alan's fate creates a gnawing unease in the film that's basically opposed to comic leavening. But writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine make the story work. The movie has an inescapably autumnal quality, but it's funny throughout, thanks largely to Gordon-Levitt's carefully considered performance. His Adam never erupts into an inexplicable Hollywoodian optimism (except in a scene inventively keyed to the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody"); but he never sinks into despair, either, even as he comes to accept that he is probably going to die. The actor's low-key, level-headed presence allows the rest of the cast to shine. Howard's flighty Rachael is more than a punching bag for the plot: Her shortcomings are recognizably human. And Rogen—who has squandered quite a bit of audience goodwill in films like The Green Hornet—is back at his best here, tossing off quips and sudden rants while maintaining a gentle emotional devotion. (After Rachael's antic withdrawal from the scene, Kyle takes Adam to a club and encourages him to try scoring with chicks. Adam's new access to medical marijuana proves most helpful in this undertaking.)
The movie really lights up whenever Anna Kendrick is on the screen. She plays a hospital counselor named Katherine, whose job is to help cancer patients confront what may be the end of their lives. Katherine is sweetly, stumblingly insecure (she's not even a doctor yet), and Kendrick's winningly squeaky appeal quickly has us rooting for her and Adam to form a romantic bond. But how would that work—especially as Adam is wheeled off for a risky, last-ditch operation from which he might not return? A lesser movie would wrap this story up with a tidy feel-good bow. But this one doesn't; not really. The uncertainty of Adam's predicament is never fully dispelled. The picture ends with a single perfect line, but it never really lets Adam, or us, off the hook.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.