Recently construction worker Curtis (Michael Shannon) has been suffering troubling dreams: take tonight, when he sees himself outside his home and notices storm clouds approaching which, when they do break, rain down something like motor oil on him. These dreams quickly turn to nightmares, leaving him jolted awake and disturbed for the rest of the day, and he is beginning to worry for his sanity. But what if these experiences are actually an omen of dark days to come? What if his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) are in danger?
What indeed, in this a film which proved a talking point by design thanks to the controversial way it ended. It was impossible not to have an opinion on that, as writer and director Jeff Nichols set out to have the audience debating what their interpretation of the finale and its meaning was; making this ever more contentious was that there did not appear to be any easy answer: either what we were seeing was the literal truth, or a fantasy born of Curtis's mental health troubles, something in between - or yet more worringly, evidence that his psychosis was catching. If it was actually a psychosis, as for the most part Nichols appeared to be guiding us in that direction.
Certainly everyone around Curtis was growing concerned about his mental balance, although they react to that in different ways because when you start acting like a nutter, some are more sympathetic than others. Those nightmares place us curiously in a sort of indie drama version of A Nightmare on Elm Street - sure there was no Freddy Krueger with his revenge motif to tie the visions together, but the reality of the dreams was being called into question, and Curtis did appear to be tormented by somebody or something, even if it was just his own mind; Shannon's suppressed disquiet was superbly portrayed. The nightmares were staged in Wes Craven style, beginning as real life and plunged into the grotesque, and all centering on Curtis fears for his family.
Little Hannah is deaf, which makes her, if anything, more vulnerable than a child that age would normally be, and Nichols played on the audience's concerns as much as Curtis's, having us all worry for the safety of the girl when either there is some situation that could place her in peril, or stemming from her father placing her in that peril by himself and his possibly selfish obsessions. Samantha tries to understand, but once her husband begins to contruct a storm shelter which could just as easily double as a nuclear fallout shelter in the back yard, and using a risky loan he has not asked her to go along with to fund it, her patience is stretched to snapping point. It is she who encourages him to seek professional help.
He has already done so, but it doesn't appear to offer much solace for him, mostly because he cannot afford the treatment it would seem he needs and is relegated to the free counselors at the local clinic - the fact he's spent all his money, and money he does not really have, on this shelter is not assisting the problem. So he loses his job, his friends, and is threatening to lose the family he desperately wishes to protect, and all because of that drive to keep those he cares about safe. It's an emotional dread which many in the twenty-first century could relate to as the bedrock of society began to come across as increasingly shaky, whether financially or in the field of law and order, and it's this unease that Nichols tapped into, fashioning one of the most ominous movies about mental illness ever made. And much of that quality was down to the way it ended, if you could call that an ending, as after the weirdly objective tone that made up the greater part of the story, Curtis's barely held off panic erupts. Not an easy film to get on with then, but memorable. Music by David Wingo.