In Lagrange, Ohio, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has apocalyptic dreams and visual and auditory hallucinations of rain "like fresh motor oil", swarms of menacing black birds, and being harmed by people close to him. He hides all of this from his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). He instead channels his anxieties into a compulsive obsession to improve and enlarge a storm shelter in his backyard; however, his increasingly strange behavior - including a tendency to cut ties with anyone in his life that has harmed him only in his dreams - strains his relationship with his family, friends, employer, and the close-knit town. Curtis grudgingly sees a counselor at a free clinic, with whom he talks about his family's psychological history. His mother (Kathy Baker) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia that surfaced in her at about the same age that Curtis is now.
In order to get the expanded storm shelter done, Curtis breaks work rules by using equipment from his construction job at his house and gets a home improvement loan he can ill afford to start building the shelter - all without telling his wife. Sam becomes angry when she discovers the project. After Curtis takes more than the prescribed dose of a sedative and suffers a seizure, Sam calls an ambulance. He recovers, then finally explains the truth to her, including his dreams.
Curtis begins to miss more work, causing tensions with his boss, as he and Sam make preparations for the cochlear implant surgery Hannah is to undergo in six weeks' time. Having been informed of the borrowed work equipment, Curtis's boss fires him and gives him only two weeks' worth of medical insurance benefits, after placing Dewart (Shea Whigham) (the close friend and co-worker whom Curtis asked to help him start construction of the shelter) on two weeks' unpaid administrative leave.
Curtis buys gas masks for his family and extends his previous employer's health insurance policy for a few extra weeks. Finding that his counselor at the free clinic has suddenly transferred and been replaced with a new one, he walks out. Tensions linger between Curtis and Sam over his loss of a job/income at such a crucial time for their family. Sam gets Curtis to see an actual psychiatrist and demands that they attend a social function so she can restore some sense of normalcy to their strained, increasingly isolated life. At a Lions Club community gathering, a bitter Dewart (who has been spreading a whispering campaign about Curtis being crazy) angrily provokes and punches Curtis. Enraged, Curtis knocks Dewart to the floor, overturns a table and unleashes a frightening verbal tirade upon everyone present. He prophetically shouts that a devastating storm is coming, insisting that none of them is prepared.
Later, a tornado warning sends him and his family into the shelter. After they awaken, Curtis reluctantly removes his gas mask, prompted by Samantha. They go to open the shelter doors, but he still hears a storm outside. His wife implores him, insisting that there's no storm and that he needs to open the door. After a tense standoff, Curtis throws open the doors into the blinding sun; a strong-but-bearable storm has passed, and neighbors are cleaning up broken tree limbs and other yard debris as power company trucks restore electricity along the street.
A psychiatrist advises the couple to go through with their planned, annual beach vacation but that Curtis will need to get psychiatric care in a facility away from his family upon their return. At Myrtle Beach, while Curtis is building sand castles with Hannah, she signs the word "storm". As Samantha exits their beachhouse, the thick, oily rain that Curtis spoke of begins to fall, staining her outstretched hand. Sam looks up to a bigger version of the ominous storm clouds Curtis had seen, massing over the ocean; tornado-like waterspouts reach down to the ocean's surface, and the tide pulls back as a tsunami looms in the distance. Curtis and Sam exchange knowing glances.Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche
Jessica Chastain as Samantha LaForche
Katy Mixon as Nat
Shea Whigham as Dewart
Kathy Baker as Sarah
Ray McKinnon as Kyle
Lisa Gay Hamilton as Kendra
Tova Stewart as Hannah LaForche
Stuart Greer as Army/Navy Dave
Take Shelter premiered in January 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival, and Sony Pictures Classics acquired rights to distribute the film in North America, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand. The film also screened in May 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the 50th Critics' Week Grand Prix. It also received the Fipresci award from the International Federation of Film Critics, sharing it with Le Havre and The Minister. In September 2011, Take Shelter was shown at the 37th Deauville American Film Festival, where it beat 13 other contenders to win the festival's grand prize. Later in September, Take Shelter was shown at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and at the 7th Zurich Film Festival, where it was awarded as the best International Feature Film.
The film had a limited release in New York and Los Angeles on September 30, 2011.
Take Shelter received critical acclaim and has a rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 153 reviews with an average score of 8.1 out of 10. The consensus states "Michael Shannon gives a powerhouse performance and the purposefully subtle filmmaking creates a perfect blend of drama, terror, and dread." The film also has a score of 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 33 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and praised Shannon's performance, writing, "It is the gift of actor Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche that while appearing to be a stable husband and father with a good job in construction, he also can evoke by his eyes and manner a deep unease." He also wrote, "Here is a frightening thriller based not on special effects gimmicks but on a dread that seems quietly spreading in the land: that the good days are ending, and climate changes or other sinister forces will sweep away our safety."
Since the release of Take Shelter, viewers have discussed the meaning of the film's ambiguous ending. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting five years after the release of the film, Nichols reflected, "I had a very strict idea of what the end of Take Shelter was. I know exactly what happens, and it’s fascinating to see people respond to it in their own ways. The beautiful part of storytelling is that you’re not just telling people a story, they’re also telling you something about themselves too through their reactions. In that situation you’re in a conversation with your audience. I really can’t think of a more rewarding or fulfilling result for something you’ve written. It’s active, kinetic, and really humbling."