If Michael Shannon gives his best onscreen performance ever in Take Shelter, and creates what might well be the finest male character of 2011, it's not exactly a shocking achievement: the role could just as well have been created for him by Jeff Nichols (and very possibly was), whose only prior work as writer and director was Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon. For Curtis LaForche, the central figure in Take Shelter, could not possibly be more of a quintessential Michael Shannon role: a regular workaday fella deep in the Rust Belt who may be and in fact probably is completely bugfuck insane and - this is the really terrifying part - is aware throughout his descent into madness that there's nothing he can do to stop it.

But the simple fact that Curtis is not in any meaningful way a change of pace for Shannon does not mean that he is anything less than note-perfect. In fact, there used to be an entire industry based upon the glorious spectacle of watching actors playing characters exactly like the characters they always played, and doing it better than anyone else good: it was called the "star system", and some of its beneficiaries included Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney. Would Shannon have been a huge star in the '30s or '40s? Hard to say - movies about edgy psychos weren't the rage then. But the point being, Curtis LaForche is the greatest Michael Shannon character ever written and he thus inspires the greatest Michael Shannon performance ever acted. And this is a wonderful thing.

Take Shelter finds Curtis, an Ohio construction foreman, plagued by intensely specific and real dreams in which a viscous, yellow rain storm is followed by an attack of sudden violence from some barely-seen human figures. These are not just nightmares; they are the most real and vivid images Curtis has experienced in his entire life, and he takes them to be previsions of a terrible possible future. When he starts having these visions during his waking moments, that proves to be his cue to act: at all costs, he must build an apocalypse-proof storm shelter in his backyard, though economically, that's a particularly suicidal idea right at this moment in time.

The wrinkle: Curtis's mother was hospitalised when he was a child with schizophrenia. And even as he is gripped in his entire being with the certainty that he must do what the visions dictate... well, that's kind of what schizophrenia does, you know?

We can talk and talk about how there are no new ideas anymore, but I will say openly that I'm not familiar with an end-of-the-world thriller about a man trying to figure out if the end of the world is actually happening or if he's just insane: for that matter, a character study from the perspective of someone who can't tell whether or not he's lost his mind is already a pretty unique and special thing. And it's that, not the apocalyptic imagery, that animates Take Shelter - this is fundamentally a movie about a man who does not know if he can trust himself. This is, maybe, the most horrifying kind of horror that there is; and there is a special economic thrust to the film's drama that makes it not just about the primal fear of "how do I know that I understand the world around me?", but about the more precise fear of "am I destroying the lives of those I am meant to be helping and protecting?" For we are told, with great precision, that the LaForches' daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) is on the very brink of tremendously expensive surgery to restore her hearing, and Curtis's hobby is sucking away nearly all of the family savings; neither his blue-collar work nor his wife Samantha's (Jessica Chastain, in a beautifully understated performance, the best of her eleventy-jillion roles in 2011) uncertain income at craft fairs, is enough to keep everything together should things go drastically wrong.

The question of whether or not Curtis is actually sick is, honestly, an afterthought: chiefly, Take Shelter is about two things, how he and Sam deal with the situation, and his increasing awareness that everything is going to shit - and that's true whether his terrible hallucinations come true or not. The film is saturated with a sense of fatalism, bubbling up through Adam Stone's implacably grey cinematography and David Wingo's off-beat score, and it's not subtle about it, however elegant the craftsmanship is (which is damn elegant, right down to an immensely dramatic sound mix). Nichols is in a highly operatic, brazenly anti-realist mode, blurring the line separating Curtis's violent dreams and the real world to the point where we can't really tell the difference between them. Every gust of wind, every cloud strikes us like the hammer of God - the film reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan's torrid The Happening as filtered through the environmental poeticism of Terrence Malick. And it's completely awesome.

The film certainly opens itself up to charges of sensationalism, particularly in light of its rather fascinating last scene - which I will not spoil, except to say that the emphasis, visually, is absolutely on the connection between people, the "we can get through this" -ness of family. Certainly I could have done without the scene where Curtis has his breakdown in the middle of a charity dinner, which plays fair in terms of its emotional build-up and the reality of the story, but comes off far too "big", far too much "Michael Shannon's Oscar clip" to fit in with the rest of the movie. Again, it's absolutely not the case that the reality of schizophrenia is a subject Nichols appears to have much interest in, and in that light, the film exploits the disease somewhat. But that is largely to the side of what Take Shelter does do exactingly well: depict two people re-learning how to rely upon one another in the face of massive personal instability, peek inside the soul of a man who know longer trusts his own mind; and above all, to create a story about the uncaring march of fate, whether that fate comes in the form of personal loss, economic and social decline, or global catastrophe, and the hope that lets us survive all of those.