A man stands in his driveway, his eyes transfixed upward toward the sky. He is looking at a foreboding cloud formation, but the expression on his face suggests deeper concern than that given to an ordinary storm. Soon, it starts to rain, but the man does not retreat into his house and seek shelter. Rather, he extends his arm, his palm outstretched. His expression turns confused as he examines his fingers — why is the rain brown? He brings a few drops to his lips and realizes this is motor oil.

So begins Take Shelter, the kind of effective slow burn that’s made far too rarely in Hollywood these days. Here’s a film that firmly rests on the talents of its two leads and sophomore director Jeff Nichols, who exhibits a sure hand in organically developing atmosphere and tension.

Chief of a drilling crew in rural Ohio, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) shares a loving relationship with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and his deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). The motor-oil storm is just the first of several nightmares for Curtis. Soon, he begins to have other disturbing dreams — his dog attacks him, a man smashes his car window and abducts Hannah, a prowler surrounds his house and the living room furniture hovers in mid-air. Curtis’ uneasiness grows when visions start to occur while he’s awake. He begins to hear claps of thunder and see bolts of lightning when others hear and see nothing.

Samantha begins to notice a change in Curtis — he’s increasingly distracted and introverted. She becomes worried when, in response to his nightmares, he first pens up their dog, then turns his attention toward their underground tornado shelter in the backyard. Convinced by his all too vivid visions that a great storm is coming, Curtis puts all his energies into expanding the shelter. Risking both the family’s limited funds and his job in the process, Curtis’ behavior becomes increasingly erratic, in turn alienating his wife, his boss and his best friend. Is Curtis literally a visionary? Or is he suffering from the same paranoid schizophrenia that plagued his mother?

These are the film’s central questions, and Shannon is a near-perfect vehicle to help pose them. With his rough features and discomforting eyes, he’s among the best contemporary actors at conveying unease and instability. (Recall his role in Revolutionary Road, for which he earned a Best Supporting nod). It’s doubly in use here, for not only are both his family and the audience unsure as to whether Curtis is crazy, but the character is as well. Shannon successfully toes the line, evoking the character’s inner doubt and turmoil with a simultaneous sense of dogged determination.

Likewise, Chastain plays Samantha as a loving, supportive wife who is shocked by Curtis’ descent into madness — but unlike the rest of the community — isn’t quite ready to write him off as a lunatic. Rather, she tries to understand and reason with him while still placing her child’s safety first and foremost. Chastain convincingly hits all the right notes in a role that would have been all too easy to play over the top. Hitherto unknown to me, she has exploded on the scene in 2011, having also appeared in The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt this year, with Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus due to be released in January. Her performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, though her turn in the higher-profile The Tree of Life may stand a better chance.

Engaging and thought-provoking throughout, Take Shelter’s nonetheless suffers from a rather large Achilles’ heel — its final scene. Coming several minutes after the film’s more natural conclusion, it serves to nearly undermine all that has come before it. A cheap plot twist, it was unnecessary and feels out of place in such an intelligent film. Take it out, and you have one of the best movies of the year. Unfortunately, it can only be judged as a whole, and it’s knocked down a couple of notches as a result.

Still, Take Shelter remains a rewarding experience for those who have not yet succumbed to the attention deficit disorder running rampant with filmgoers. With its rural setting and gradual growth of dread and uncertainty, it struck me as a subtler, more cerebral version of Signs, M. Night Shyamalan’s last critical success from 2002. Now being shown in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, people from other parts of the country would do well to seek this one out on DVD.