It wasn’t until about six years ago that I became truly aware of Michael Shannon. I remember hearing about his breakout performance in Revolutionary Road back in 2008, so I knew he was around and in 2015 he was in a movie called 99 Homes which caught my attention. I was working at a movie theater in Manhattan at the time and our theater was showing it. For some reason I never got around to seeing it in the theaters, but I remember one of the main things I kept hearing about the film was how amazing he was in it. After 99 Homes had already left theaters, I finally decided to see what this guy was all about. I combed through his filmography on IMDb, I watched almost every interview with him I could find on YouTube, and within a week he became my new favorite actor (and person). The fact that he’s very much not a typical Hollywood actor/celebrity is an appealing factor for me. In real life it’s clear that he takes his work seriously but not himself, never shying from showcasing his quirkiness on talk shows and making cameos in comedy films like The Night Before and They Came Together. He also makes the time to do a lot of theater, having been in Frankie and Johnny and the Clar de Lune on Broadway opposite musical theater pro Audra McDonald last year. He shows a dedication to his craft that is incredibly inspiring, constantly working but never getting caught up in being an actual celebrity.
The actor turns 46 years old this month, and it feels only right to celebrate him and his many memorable performances. If you’re ever wanting to have yourself a little Michael Shannon retrospective at home, below is my curated list. While it may be shocking that I left out his Oscar nominated performances (Nocturnal Animals and Revolutionary Road), my main goal was to emphasize his versatility. Watching these five movies will give you a better sense of his style, his choices in roles, and an understanding as to why he’s one of the most talented and captivating actors of our time.
Right off the bat we’re starting with a crazy Shannon performance. It’s an appropriate place to begin since Bug is one of Shannon’s first leading roles in a movie. He originated the part in the stage version and was fortunate enough to play the same character in the movie. Directed by William Friedkin and written by Tracy Letts (based on his own play), Bug is an intense and, at times, rough watch. While the premise is seemingly simple, it devolves into a kind of waking nightmare that you can’t look away from. Shannon stars opposite Ashley Judd, and their characters form an at first oddly sweet bond when they meet each other in a desolate Oklahoma town. Throughout the film, their collective brokenness leads them to share a destructive delusion that is heartbreaking, yet strangely understandable within the context of the story.
Shannon’s performance here is subtle when necessary and explosive when it counts. His character struggles with his mental health, but Shannon handles him with such care and understanding. This is pivotal to the role, otherwise he would just come off as being portrayed as crazy for crazy’s sake. Shannon’s ultimate skill is bringing glimpses of humanity to otherwise difficult-to-relate-to characters, which shines through in this film and is a common trait of several of the characters he has played throughout his career. Bug is essential when talking about his body of work, as it is such a raw display of his talent and is what helped propel his acting future.
Midnight Special (2016)
Midnight Special is one of two movies on this list written and directed by filmmaker Jeff Nichols. Out of the five films that Jeff Nichols has made, Shannon has appeared in all of them, playing the lead in three. Clearly, they get along, and it’s apparent watching all of Nichols’ movies that he has a deep affection and understanding for how Shannon works. It’s in large part to Nichols, I believe, that people see Shannon as leading man material. Midnight Special validates this especially, which sees Shannon portraying a father who’s protecting his son (who possess special powers) from the government and the cult they escaped from.
Shannon is supported by a great ensemble cast (Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard), and that’s where a lot of the strength of his character comes from. He’s not alone in this harrowing journey. Interacting with these characters confirms just how far he’ll go to keep his son safe. It’s a beautiful role and performance, and the best part about it is that it’s not showy. It not only fits into the tone and style of the film, but it stems from real human feelings and fears, most notably the fear of failing as a parent. Shannon isn’t afraid to channel the hard emotions and realities of life to perform well, and he manages to do it without going over the top.
99 Homes (2014)
I had to include at least one movie that features evil Michael Shannon. He does have a rep for playing some of the worst people portrayed on screen: Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, and more recently Richard Strickland in The Shape of Water. He brings his signature intensity to each of these roles, and it’s that intensity that makes people usually cast him as the villain. With all of these characters, however, it’s hard to imagine how they are capable of being so awful. And that’s what makes his portrayal of Rick Carver in 99 Homes so brilliant and chilling.
99 Homes is a compelling drama about a young man, Dennis Nash, who is evicted from his home in Florida, set around the housing crisis in the late 2000s. Shannon plays Rick Carver, the real estate broker who carries out this eviction. Carver ends up taking Nash under his wing, and Nash slowly sees himself becoming just as ruthless as Carver. While on surface level Carver is the antagonist, his motivations are made clear. He’s simply the product of an extremely corrupt and flawed government machine. The real bad guy is the whole economic system and how it favors the rich. Carver’s still not meant to be portrayed as a sympathetic guy, and Shannon doesn’t play him as one. There’s depth there, thanks to the writing and Shannon’s performance. You understand why he is the way he is, and you accept it even though you still don’t want Nash to end up like him. Shannon handles this balance expertly, clearly having fun with the slick dialogue in his own style but also never going further than he needs to, making it one of his most memorable “bad guy” performances.
What They Had (2018)
It might be a little surprising to find out that Shannon starred in a conventional family drama in 2018. You might think he’s above such roles or that he’s not capable of playing just a normal guy with a normal life and normal problems. You probably think that Chris Evans or Chris Pine would be better suited for the part. But alas, you’d be mistaken. What Shannon specifically brings to all of his roles is a subtle depth (which I’ve already alluded to). His character doesn’t have to be a uniquely damaged soul or an evil super villain to turn in a good performance. His talent is almost better suited to playing real, complex human characters. And that’s what is so great about his performance in What They Had, a family drama also starring Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, and Robert Forster.
Shannon and Hilary Swank play brother and sister in the movie, and their scenes together are quite exceptional. Centering on a family that is forced to come to terms with their mother’s dementia, What They Had teeters on the edge of melodrama from time to time, offering a glimpse into what it’s like coming to the part of your life when it’s your turn to take care of your parents. Shannon’s role as Danner and Forster’s son technically could have been played by anyone, but you wouldn’t get the same result. Shannon fits in beautifully with this stellar cast. He adds so much to the character that you wouldn’t get from a conventional actor. It makes sense that he would take on this kind of role at this point in his career. It’s not flashy in any way, but it’s an opportunity for some good character work and a chance to work with a solid group of actors. It’s not his best performance, but it’s up there in terms of getting to see him really connect to the heart of a character.
Take Shelter (2011)
It’s difficult for me to talk about Take Shelter and not at some point declare it as a flat-out masterpiece. I know that’s heavy praise, the weight of which may affect your expectations of it. That being said, it’s undeniable how important it is when delving into Shannon’s career. It’s the continuation of his ongoing working relationship with Jeff Nichols (their second film together), and his first leading role.
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a husband and father who starts experiencing apocalyptic visions of an oncoming storm that leads him to take drastic measures to ensure his family’s safety. Similarly to Midnight Special, the theme of parental fears is apparent, but it adds an element of mental instability and its impact on a family dynamic. It’s another example of a role that requires subtlety and nuance, and that’s right in Shannon’s wheelhouse. Obviously, there’s a pattern within Shannon’s work in terms of roles that he chooses. He goes for characters he can find some sort of humanity and connection in (yes, even General Zod in Man of Steel). Curtis is certainly a more relatable character than most, but the journey he goes on is difficult and leads him to being on the brink of losing his mind. This part takes a certain type of acting talent to pull off, and Shannon does that and then some. His performance in Take Shelter is the ultimate culmination of his skills as an actor. He possesses a fearlessness that allows him to embody characters truthfully without ever being disingenuous. While that trait can be found in all of his performances, it’s what makes his turn in Take Shelter so special and what solidifies him as one of the best actors working today.