It's not a stretch to think of the intense character actor Michael Shannon playing a father who comes unhinged in his efforts to protect himself and his family.
What is surprising is the way the Oscar-nominated Shannon, who was born and raised in Lexington, came to play Curtis, a rural Ohio man who acts on his prophetic nightmares by renovating a storm cellar into something that can survive a holocaust in the new film Take Shelter.
"I recently started a family myself," says Shannon, whose daughter with actress Kate Arrington was born in 2008. "There's so much crazy stuff going on in the world right now that you feel helpless, powerless to protect your family from the world. I live in New York City, and you're always very aware of the instability of things in a place like that. That navigated me, I think, toward playing this guy."
Shannon, 37, says his character in the film, which opens in Lexington on Friday, is not just paranoid, not simply a man who questions his own sanity when his dreams lead him to start taking precautions against the family dog, tornadoes and poisonous gas.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
"The fact of the matter is, nature is wild. It's unaware of itself. It doesn't have any malevolent feelings toward us. It just doesn't care. That's scary, if you think about it. And Curtis does.
"The world is a threatening place. I think we can all say, over the course of the past year, we've seen a lot of examples of nature making it that way.
"To me, this movie is about spiritual questions as much as anything else. Curtis doesn't believe in God. And he's frightened by nature. If you don't believe in God, then there's nothing running nature. It's just this random force that you can't totally predict and that you have no control over. How do you deal with that, cope with uncertainty?"
Take Shelter lets Shannon "show a side to him that's new, both to the actor and the man," says Shea Whigham, a friend who has worked with Shannon on four films, including Take Shelter, and the TV series Boardwalk Empire.
"He has a kindness about him, a quiet. We don't talk on the set. But that leaves him room to show a real volatility on the screen."
Ray McKinnon, who plays the brother of Shannon's character in Take Shelter, marvels at how Shannon has that "Brando way of seeming relaxed, all the time, even when his character's in knots."
Shannon has been gaining notice for years, pulling in an Oscar nomination for 2008's Revolutionary Road. But Take Shelter is putting him on a whole new level, with the film winning the grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and being heralded as a "masterpiece" by the likes of Vanity Fair magazine.
"Michael's arguably right now the best actor in his age group," adds Whigham. "He's a once-in-a-generation actor. He's that good."
Shannon is now so good that he no longer has to "live the roles, 24 hours a day, the way I did in my 20s. It's exhausting."
That means the work can be more like play. The mild-mannered native Kentuckian can play a gonzo music impresario in The Runaways and have a few laughs, or take on a drug-addicted biker in Machine Gun Preacher and not worry about its off-hours effects.
"Any time you get a chance to play, you know, an outlaw, you jump at it. Bad boys and bikers, all that craziness, running with that crowd, busting in on crack dealers and robbing them. ... The reality of actually living that way is way too difficult to even think about."
And for his next trick, Shannon won't worry about reality at all. In the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, he is to be the villainous General Zod, a character memorably played by Terence Stamp in the Christopher Reeve Superman films from the 1970s and '80s.
"The original film series made a big impression on me," Shannon says. "I remember being scared to death of Terence Stamp and those other two, all dressed in black. There's no way I'm going to be able to do anything close to what he did. I'm trundling off in my own direction, and we'll see if it works. I can be a little scary, too."