Rent it now: Is he crazy or is the world about to end?

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Michael Shannon has an extended breakdown in the 2011 independent film “Take Shelter” that is quite extraordinary and very painful to watch.

The actor plays Curtis, a working class Ohio husband and father who begins to have hallucinations and dreams that slowly tear his well-ordered life to pieces.

The man thinks friends and co-workers have become secret enemies, his lovely wife might be a violent psychopath, and that the whole ecology of his peaceful community might be turning against him.

The movie zeroes in on this 35-year old man as he slowly loses his bearings and it begins to destabilize every aspect of his life.

I don’t think I’ve seen an emotional meltdown this realistic — and detailed — since Liv Ullmann played the psychiatrist having a nervous breakdown in the 1976 Ingmar Bergman drama “Face to Face.”

Ullmann’s Oscar-nominated performance was so intense that the friend I saw the movie with — who was in the middle of therapy — left halfway through, whispering to me that we could meet in the lobby when it was over.

“Take Shelter” has probably disturbed and frightened people much more than any traditional horror movie.

The line between abnormal and normal behavior can be so thin that we don’t always recognize symptoms of mental illness even in those who are closest to us. Strange behavior that comes and goes can be brushed away as the product of stress or physical illness. Who wants to believe that someone they love is becoming dangerously disturbed?

Working on a tight budget, writer-director Jeff Nichols does a great job of showing us environmental disturbances — strange lightning storms, odd flocking of birds — that could be in Curtis’s head or could really be happening.

These events — real or imagined — conspire to push the man to his breaking point. Curtis knows that he has a family history of schizophrenia and is lucid enough to fear he is about to lose all connection with reality.

“Take Shelter” shows us the limited, ineffective resources that are available to people without much money who need therapy. One of the most upsetting scenes in the film depicts Curtis’s despair when he faces a new and rather disconnected clinic counselor (after the sudden departure of a counselor he has come to trust).

We see that the loss of hope is almost as terrible as the possible loss of sanity for one of the most compelling and well-acted characters to be seen in an American film last year.

Joe Meyers

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