Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name. Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.
In just a few short years, Michael Shannon has gone from being that guy – that guy who nearly zapped Clifton Collins Jr.’s balls off in Tigerland, that guy who screwed with Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, that guy who got the shit kicked out of him by Eminem in 8 Mile – to one of the most respected actors working in American independent film.
Michael Shannon, mind you, is no longer that guy. He’s Michael Shannon: the slim, often terrifying, always commanding actor reminiscent of a young Christopher Walken. Most of the films mentioned below feature starring turns by Shannon, and some of them, I fear, you may not have even heard of.
But fear not, because as I’ve found, going blind into a Michael Shannon film never proves to be fruitless.
Five Essential Roles
World Trade Center (2006)
Sergeant Dave Karnes
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was met with its fair share of criticism, some warranted, some not. Aside from its taboo subject matter, the film had a lot going against it. It was released just months after Paul Greengrass’ far superior United 93, it starred Nicolas Cage (which is either really good or really bad), and it was, quite frankly, a little too persistent with its patriotism.
In spite of all this, I felt that the film was a success. And with repeat viewings, I now know why. The supporting players, far more than the leads, completely make the film. There’s Stone-vet Frank Whaley, William Mapother, an unrecognizable Stephen Dorff, and, chiefly, Michael Shannon, who plays an ex Marine driven by God to search Ground Zero for survivors.
Most of Shannon’s lines, on paper, are canned clichés of heroism. “We do not turn back,” “They’ll need good men out there, to avenge… this,” “We are Marines. You. Are. Our. Mission,” and so on. But in Shannon’s hands, these lines are far from forced. They’re authentic declarations of love. Love for one’s country, love for fellow man, love, I suppose, for the brotherhood of war.
There’s a brief scene in the film when Shannon and Whaley are looking for any sign of life amidst the rubble. Shannon thinks he hears a pipe banging below, then shakes it off as nothing. When he hears it again, the camera quickly pans in on his face. His wide-eyed, determined face. He rushes into action without hesitation. A thrilling moment that's impossible to shake.
William Friedkin’s Bug is completely fucked up. There’s really no better way to put it. It’s about a kind yet obviously unstable war veteran (Shannon) who convinces his new girlfriend (Ashley Judd) that their hotel room is invested with tiny bugs. Despite this, the two never leave the room, and scene after scene, the film grows increasingly absurd and terrifying, which is meant as a compliment.
Bug is a film that rests solely on the talent of its actors. If the film does work (which for many it didn’t), then the people on screen deserve most of the credit. Shannon, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. (yes, Harry Connick Jr.) all inhabit the world the film creates with unhinged dedication. As the movie progresses, Shannon begins to adopt more bug-like mannerisms; the twitching, the slouching, the scratching. It’s reminiscent of Jeff Golblum’s masterful performance in The Fly. And considering the material, what could possibly be a better compliment than that?
Shotgun Stories (2007)
The story for Jeff Nichols’ first film is so simple, I’m amazed that I’ve never seen it done before. After Michael Shannon’s estranged father dies, he and his biological brothers more or less crash his funeral. Their father, we learn, was an abusive drunk who walked out on them years ago, only to sober up and start a new family a few towns over. After the funeral, Shannon and his brothers battle (both emotionally and physically) their father’s new family.
This tense, taunt, and all together remarkable family drama remains criminally underseen, which is such a shame. Shannon, along with the rest of the unknown cast, is utterly superb as the anguished eldest brother. If you liked Take Shelter, which Nichols also directed, then you’ll absolutely love Shotgun Stories. Describing plot details any further would simply be cruel. Trust me, it deserves to be seen.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)
Michael Shannon is no stranger to inhabiting a character of fleeting sanity. One of his best, most developed characters is his all-the-way gone Brad McCullum in Werner Herzog’s remarkable My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.
On one bright, sunshiny day, McCullum, having apparently gone mad, holds his mother hostage inside his home. His girlfriend notifies the police, who barricade the residence, and it becomes very clear very quickly that McCullum intends to kill his mother, if he hasn’t already done so.
Like many of Herzog’s films, the reason for the motivations isn't nearly as thrilling as the motivations themselves. As the film evolves, we’re privy to glimpses of McCullum’s life (the film is based on true events), including his brief excursion to Peru where his sanity initially began to slip. Shannon, it goes without saying, is flawless as McCullum. He embodies the man’s anger and lack of remorse to haunting results.
I haven’t the slightest clue why My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done didn’t receive the attention it deserved. In addition to its masterful director, it’s produced by David Lynch and co-stars Willem Dafoe (as the head hostage negotiator), Chloë Sevigny (as the girlfriend), and Grace Zabriskie (as the terrifying mother), with great supporting performances by Brad Dourif, Michael Peña, Udo Kier and more. It’s on Netflix Instant and demands to be seen.
Take Shelter (2011)
As Curtis, Shannon does something very difficult at this state of his career: he proves, yet again, that he is an utter revelation. We’ve seen Shannon go mad (don’t we all go a little mad sometimes?), but with Take Shelter, he takes his internal emotional expression to a whole new level. In my original review, I said that Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter only further proved his apparent limitless depth. Curtis ranks among his finest performances, which is saying a whole hell of a lot. Expect not only an Oscar nomination, but possible frontrunner status as well.
The Best of the Best
Revolutionary Road (2008)
In a lesser year, that is to say, in a year where one of our most talented actors hadn’t died unexpectedly, Michael Shannon would’ve won the Oscar for his spellbinding performance in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road.
Recently released from a mental institution, John is thrown into suburban society by his well-to-do mother (Kathy Bates), by spending time with a seemingly happy couple, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Problem is, DiCaprio and Winslet are a mess, and John has no problem throwing it directly in their faces.
John is the worst kind of crazy: the kind that is fully aware of how off they are. Equipped with virtually no social filter, he says what he wants when he wants, the result of which is jaw dropping bombs of dialogue that will make your head spin. Actually, in a film surrounded by characters who mean little of what they say, John is the only "real" character in the film.
It’s a raw, haunting performance that shakes me every time. You never quite know what John is going to do next. He may scream, he may swing, he may sit there silently. But whatever he’s doing, you cannot take your eyes off him.
Other Notable Roles
|Shannon in Boardwalk Empire|
Vanilla Sky (2001)
8 Mile (2002)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
The Missing Person (2009)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
(Okay, to be fair, Boardwalk Empire should probably be a part of Shannon’s five essential roles. Just because it isn’t, doesn’t make the show, or his performance, any less brilliant. Boardwalk Empire is worth watching for many reasons, Shannon chief among them.)