The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Michael Shannon
I've been covering films on JoBlo.com for about eight years now. One of the careers I've been most excited to see rise in that time is that of Michael Shannon. When I started on the site he was essentially a day player although a rare lead in William Friedkin's under-seen BUG gave him some buzz. The first year I covered TIFF, Shannon was there with two movies – both by Werner Herzog. One was BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, where his role was no bigger than the ones he'd been playing since his debut in 1993's GROUNDHOG DAY (he's the excited Wrestlemania fan at the climax). The other was MY SON, MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE, which gave Shannon a lead – so clearly Herzog knew talent when he saw it.
As my film festival travels went on Shannon's career really started to pick up steam, especially after Jeff Nichols's TAKE SHELTER, which made everyone re-think what he was capable of. After that movie, he was no longer a bit player in studio fare and the occasional supporting player in an indie. Now he was a full-fledged indie star and studios were starting to take notice, with his part as Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire coincidentally starting up around the same time.
Since then, Shannon's moved from indie hit to indie hit, generated (well-deserved) Oscar buzz for 99 HOMES, a big payday for his part as General Zod in MAN OF STEEL, and now a full heroic lead in a studio film, this week's well-received MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (a film which doesn't come out in my neck of the woods for until April- grrrr). Shannon's certainly an unconventional actor but he's a powerhouse performer and no matter if he makes it to full leading man status or not, he'll stay in demand and become one of those beloved character actors who'll work forever.
Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon have something special going-on. Right from their first collaboration, SHOTGUN STORIES, the two seemed to have a symbiotic director-actor thing going-on, and Nichols hasn't made a film without him (he even cameo-ed in MUD). What's really cool is how Nichols uses Shannon's trademark intensity in unconventional ways. In SHOTGUN STORIES, we keep waiting for Shannon to explode and hurt someone, but he never does. Ditto TAKE SHELTER, arguably Shannon's best-ever performance, where he plays a doting dad with apocalyptic visions who you're sure is insane, but proves to be anything but as the film goes on. Nichols's MIDNIGHT SPECIAL looks like it continues that trend.
One of Shannon's early, substantial roles came in Oliver Stone's WORLD TRADE CENTER. In it, he plays a military vet who rushes to the Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks to help rescue the people pinned under the rubble. As sincere a performance as Shannon gives, something about the way Stone directed him here rubbed me the wrong way, as if Stone didn't have a real grip on what motivated the real person Shannon played – Dave Karnes. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but at the time I worked as a marketing rep for Paramount in Montreal and I had to watch the movie several times, and it's something that stuck-out to me. That said, Shannon is fine.
When saw it at Sundance back in 2010, I really enjoyed Floris Sigismondi's THE RUNAWAYS, a biopic of the famous girl group from the seventies. Kristen Stewart was great as Joan Jett, and so was Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie. However, I found Shannon absolutely stole the show as the girl's coked-up, scumbag manager Kim Fowley. He largely plays the part for laughs and while more recent allegations against Fowley by Jackie Fox have cast a dark shadow over the part, it doesn't dilute the effectiveness of Shannon's amazing performance.
The first time I really took note of Shannon was in Sam Mendes's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. He actually got nominated for an Oscar for playing an unhinged neighbor of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's, and while he only had two scenes, he made a massive impression. The second scene is especially noteworthy for how DiCaprio allows himself to be so thoroughly dominated by Shannon, something very rare for Leo.
Shannon's an incredibly busy actor. I saw him in two Sundance movies this year (COMPLETE UNKNOWN/ FRANK & LOLA) while he's got another one (WOLVES) playing at Tribeca, along with roles in Tom Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, another Jeff Nichols movie – LOVING – and (presumably) a bit part in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE as Zod. Oh yeah, and he's also playing Elvis Presley in next month's ELVIS & NIXON. Whew!
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