The biggest mistake you can make with the movies of Michael Shannon is to focus on the villains. It is true that Shannon, forty-five years old, is one of the most reliable actors in the industry for a bad guy who genuinely makes you fear for the safety of his adversaries.
At the same time, Shannon, with 25+ years of film and television credits, is one of the most reliably unique actors currently working. This uniqueness is particularly impressive in the sense of what he brings to his most compelling characters. No two are exactly alike, even if figures like General Zod or Colonel Richard Strickland share certain qualities related to obsession, or a willingness to carry out an assignment or dream at any cost. One of Shannon’s most vital qualities lies in the fact that with virtually all of his roles, he has brought to them ideas and traits that no other actor could conjure. It leaves us with an ongoing situation, in which even the least interesting Michael Shannon films are at least interesting because he’s in it.
In a handful of cases, Michael Shannon has been a movie’s sole saving grace. At least, on the performance side of things.
As his career continues to evolve and move upwards, it’s likely that there will be many challengers to the list presented here.
1. Bug (2006)
Director: William Friedkin
Michael Shannon actually originated his role in this film, a late-career surge from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist), on the stage. Friedkin liked Shannon’s performance so much, he allowed him to recreate one of the story’s most important characters (both the stage and screenplay were written by Tracy Letts) for one of 2006’s darkest horror movies. Shannon had appeared as a supporting actor in several high-profile, impressive roles up to this point, such as 8 Mile and Pearl Harbor. Bug, which put him opposite Ashley Judd (in one of her best performances to date), was one of the first times he played one of the leads.
Milestones aside, Shannon’s paranoia and growing affection for thoughts that may or may not be delusional, gives the movie much of its almost-numbing creepiness. I don’t care if you think his character is nuts. No matter what, it is almost impossible not to believe his theories about the government, or the monstrosities they have inflicted upon him. Shannon’s performance is even more unsettling than the movie’s refusal to give us any easy answers, or even a moment’s peace.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories is every bit an example of cinematic perfection as the other four films he has helmed. It was also the first time he worked with Michael Shannon, who has subsequently appeared in every movie Nichols has made since.
Every role Shannon has played in a Jeff Nichols film has been different, interesting. His performance here, as a young man on one side of a deadly conflict between two sets of half-brothers in rural Arkansas, after their father passes away, is quite possibly the best one of this particular collaboration. Shannon brings intensity to the role. There is a touch of madness to the whole thing to begin with. Shannon’s Son Hayes character is part of that. There is also a struggle for reason and sanity going on within these men, certainly with Son. Shannon creates that balance, and in turn creates a character that lends itself well to the richness of this movie.
It makes sense that someone with Shannon’s singular intensity would be a good fit for one of the most notorious hitmen in modern history. Richard Kuklinski is a fascinating type of monster, but there is always a risk of romanticizing such characters, while working towards a layered portrayal. Shannon’s performance avoids this pitfall by making Shannon’s simplistic attitude towards his work something that we just can’t ignore. We see him as a family man. We see that he loves these people. All of this is true.
The Iceman, despite some flaws in its execution, also shows the casualness with which Shannon as Kuklinski goes about his job. The performance is a staggering reminder that evil men can do things like love, or even regret something hideous. That doesn’t make Kuklinski sympathetic. It simply makes him interesting.
2016 might be the best year to date for Michael Shannon as an actor. In that year alone, he appeared in Frank and Lola, Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, Loving, Wolves, and others. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to build this entire list of the best Michael Shannon movies from this specific calendar year all by itself.
Nocturnal Animals, one of the most viscerally overwhelming movies released that year, stands above the rest. Although the story focuses largely on a woman (Amy Adams), suddenly back in touch with her first husband, who has an unpublished novel to show her, many of the best moments in Nocturnal Animals belong to Michael Shannon. An aging, terminally-ill cop in the novel, which acts as the second act of the movie, Shannon plays this cop as a dark ideal in a world generally devoid of light. Shannon’s intensity is here, but there is also something mournful in the depiction of a cop who sees no choice but to take a wretched situation into his own hands.
Shannon would receive an Oscar nomination for the role of Detective Bobby Andes. Rightfully so.
The Shape of Water, which nabbed Guillermo del Toro a much-deserved Oscar win for Best Director, is essentially a love story. Granted, it’s a story in which a human woman (Sally Hawkins) begins a romantic/sexual relationship with a fish creature. That still counts. It’s a little odd, sure. In the hands of someone like del Toro, it is a story of the forces of good against the forces of evil. Love in its purest and most honest form is on the side of good.
However, that wouldn’t mean as much if evil wasn’t well-represented. On that note, The Shape of Water features Michael Shannon in one of his most hideous, powerful roles. Colonel Richard Strickland only seems to be pleased when someone is in agony. He is so deeply racist, he finds that side of himself to be humorous. This is an ugly, hateful bureaucrat. Not only is he ambitious, but he seems to enjoy those moments in which his work gives him the opportunity to inflict terror and pain.
In short, Strickland is a formidable, almost impassable adversary for our love story. If Michael Shannon wasn’t so good in the role, the movie’s conclusion would have been vapid, toothless, and boring. That’s not a knock on Hawkins, or Doug Jones, who plays the humanoid amphibian. It’s just crucial to have the darker side of their journey well-represented.
Regardless of the movie, or the color of the hat worn by whoever Michael Shannon is playing, you can be sure that side will have something to drive the rest of the film. Few actors working today are as reliable in this area as he is. The Shape of Water proves that without question.
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