We first saw him a lot longer ago than we think we did. His movie debut involved briefly bumping into Bill Murray in Groundhog Day way back in 1993. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings, and it took a little while for things to take off after that, but standing here now in 2017 it isn’t much of a stretch to say that there are not many actors working today whose presence can enliven a movie as much as Michael Shannon.
In 2007 the late, great Sidney Lumet released his final picture, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Layered, complex, and vibrating with dread, it’s a minor masterpiece of a movie. As was typical of Lumet’s work, it is also filled with phenomenal performances. The key players—Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and Rosemary Harris—all shine. Nestled in between these titanic central performances, however, was a small role of quiet intensity. Michael Shannon appears not for very long at all in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, in a scene opposite Ethan Hawke, but his appearance is one that is emblematic of his acting style as a whole: intense and eye-catching, yet generous and unselfish. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, especially for someone with as distinctive a look as Shannon—the man could stop a lancing lightning bolt with that intense, disquieting stare fer chrissakes.
But Shannon, gifted with a natural acting weapon as potent as his face, has never sought to use it to overpower proceedings, to upstage his colleagues and to showboat. In his slot in Devil he is powerful and intimidating, but appropriately so. He has a seismic impact on the characters he interacts with, as well as on the audience, but he never feels out of place, incongruous. There is still the idea in some corners of the halls of punditry that Michael Shannon is only good at being, essentially, a cartoonish presence of villainy. The truth could not be further from that.
Powerful, strong, and/or intimidating are fine qualities to project, but they are fundamentally flimsy trifles if not backed up by something grounded, more vulnerable and human. There are not many names I can think of who can pull off this balancing act as well as Michael Shannon. Rosario Dawson is one other such performer, as was Shannon’s co-star in Devil, Philip Seymour Hoffmann. They each have, or had, the skill to portray two sides of the human condition that are too often made out in fiction to be incapable of existing alongside each other. (And I bet that right now there are some questioning the mention of Dawson there. To which I say: look to her performances. Really look.) Courage, as they say after all, is not the absence of fear, but the ability to look fear in the eyes and to carry on. Similarly, power, strength, and a commanding presence do not exist in a vacuum, instead often stemming from warmer, ‘softer’ emotions such as love, worry, and empathy. These are soulful qualities, and Michael Shannon is an actor who is able to summon tremendous amounts of soul in his portrayals of a wide variety of characters.
It’s in his work with writer-director Jeff Nichols—one of the finest auteurs of the twenty first century—that we get to see the full scope of humanity that Michael Shannon is capable of bringing to the screen, and that more than anything else gives the lie to the assumption that he is only good at playing the glowering villain. In their collaborations thus far—which happen to be every single one of Nichols’ movies—we have been served up an embarrassment of human riches, bruised and raw but warm and giving. Whether it’s in the leading roles (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Midnight Special) or the supporting ones (Mud, Loving), Nichols writes characters that are tailor-made for a layered performer like Shannon. He is not cut from the typical leading man cloth, but he can carry a movie on his shoulders with aplomb. Much ink has been spilled about directors or writers who create roles with a specific performer in mind, but Nichols and Shannon really do give the hackneyed concept of a creator’s ‘muse’ some credibility.
Whole pieces could be written about each one of Shannon’s roles in Jeff Nichols’ movies, but 2011’s Take Shelter deserves special mention. It is a superlative performance in a gallery of greatness. Wonderfully supported by Jessica Chastain, Shannon plays a loving father (Curtis) plagued by apocalyptic visions—dire warnings of a cataclysmic storm and the overwhelming, all-conquering need to protect his family from it. But neither Curtis nor the audience know if there is any truth to these visions. There is simply no way to tell whether they are simply playing out in Curtis’ mind, or if there is some real and terrible weight behind their prophetic nature. The entire movie is written and shot with some of the most well-handled ambiguity that I have ever seen. As he begins to question his sanity and lash out at the world, Curtis becomes the picture of pathos. Driven by a burning love of his family and a mounting conviction of the need to protect them, he is led down a road of rage and fear—as much directed by him at the world, and as a recipient of it from those around him suffering as a result of his condition. Though Nichols’ script does a wonderful job of laying the foundations, it is Michael Shannon’s deep and nuanced portrayal that elevates Curtis to one of the best performances in recent memory, by anyone.
We talk of soul and humanity here. They have a cousin: humor. There are actors—serious heavy hitters who can carry a prestige drama without breaking a sweat, who seize up when it comes to playing it light. To take just one example: It’s no secret to anyone that I am not exactly a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting prowess. Nevertheless, some people rate his skill for the dramatic quite highly; but even they must admit that in his skillset there is a gulf between how he acquits himself in a dramatic role—passably—and how he handles a role designed to elicit laughter—awfully. Lest it look like I’m hating too much on poor old Leo again, though, let it be said that this is not an affliction unique to him. Many performers have trouble transitioning from drama to comedy. But Michael Shannon is no Leo, and he is no ‘many performers’.
Directors know this. David Koepp and Jonathan Levine, who cast Shannon in Premium Rush and The Night Before, respectively, know this. The former is essentially a live action Road Runner cartoon, joyfully inventive and fun as hell; the latter a middling-to-good ‘Seth Rogen Movie’. Both employ Michael Shannon’s capacity for humor to maximum effect. The impressive thing is that they do it in wildly different ways. In Rush, Shannon snarls and rages, spittle near enough flying from his gurning mouth as he chases after Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hyper-mobile bike messenger. In The Night Before he plays the old, high-school era drug dealer, appearing intermittently throughout Rogen And Co’s. semi-mystical wander through a New York City night. Part angelic entity, part sinister drug-dealing hermit, the character gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie in some of the briefest moments. Only Michael Shannon could have given those characters as much life. In fact, if both roles were not written with him in mind then I’ll eat my foot. But then again, that’s the Power Of Shannon: even if a role isn’t written for him, it actually was. Because he will own it, and he will reach back in time to make it his role from the point of conception, causality be damned.
Michael Shannon is an actor of quite unique skill, and it is genuinely exciting to be a film fan at a time when he is working. From hard-hitting humanistic drama to wide, slapstick humor, his presence is a joy to behold. Werner Herzog knows this too. He’s worked with him three times. He’s even structured a movie around him. Do you want argue with Werner bloody Herzog?