Dissecting Michael Shannon!

Last Updated on July 31, 2021


So Michael Shannon's a pretty scary dude, is he not?! Dude's got a mad-mean-mug that'll make Medusa blush a deep shade of crimson. Thing is, he also happens to be a tremendous actor. One of the best in the biz in fact, an absolute actor's actor, one of our favorites, the kind that warrants more merited plaudits among his peers than from casual to uninformed fans who've yet to make this man a household name. And bigger movies this guy couldn't be in, as he's obviously the primary foe of Kal El himself, General Zod. And it's not just the anonymity he's kept intact, it's the credibility. The consistent quality Shannon delivers no matter the project.

Since cutting his teeth on bit roles and ancillary parts all through the 1990s, Shannon has since appeared in such genre-bent mainstays as VANILLA SKY, HIGH CRIMES, BAD BOYS II, DEAD BIRDS, CRIMINAL, BUG, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD, SHOTGUN STORIES, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE, TAKE SHELTER, THE ICEMAN, PREMIUM RUSH, THE HARVEST and most recently, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. That's a hell of a genre run for a guy just now entering his performative prime.

And you know what? We're just getting started too…so join us below as we daringly Dissect the 20-year genre career of Mr. Michael Shannon!



Look, when you're given 55 full hours to arc, mold and sculpt a performance over the course of a 5-year televisual run, there's no reason to think that Shannon's turn as Nelson Van Alden/George Mueller in Boardwalk Empire is anything but his most extensive. The sheer breadth makes the role one of Shannon's most substantial, even if it isn't his overall best. It's certainly his most accomplished if not impressive. However, on the big-screen, we'd be remiss not to highlight the fecund, decade-long union between Shannon and filmmaking friend Jeff Nichols. Over the course of 9 years, Shannon and Nichols have made 5 movies together: SHOTGUN STORIES, TAKE SHELTER, MUD, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the yet-to-be-released non-genre drama LOVING. All five are wildly disparate and utterly unrelated, save for Shannon consistently anchoring each flick. However, since Nichols gave the dude a starring role in their searing sophomore effort, it's with the same fevered fanaticism as Shannon's character that we fete the portentous psychological thriller TAKE SHELTER as Mike's most commanding to date!

"There's a storm coming. Like nothing you've ever seen. And not a one of you is prepared for it!"

What Shannon is able to do with these simple 22 syllables in the seminal mess-hall scene in TAKE SHELTER is utterly spellbinding. How he's able to inject such abject terror and impending doom into 19 otherwise dull and nonthreatening words is a true testament to his power as a performer. Anyone who's familiar with the pivotal scene knows of what we speak, as Shannon literally delivers a show-stopping plead for his fellow patrons to protect themselves from an apocalyptic super-storm he can see closing in. Only, he sees what the rest cannot, and when reciprocated through the lens of his fellow citizens' eyes, Shannon's character comes off as a totally unhinged, psychotic schizoid on the brink of a potentially violent meltdown. We can't tell whether to trust in what he believes, and therefore go along with him, or whether we ought to fear for his family's own safety…from him as a threat, not necessarily the storm.

The whole movie in fact, built around Shannon's ferociously febrile performance, is designed to keep us guessing, to keep us off guard and on edge throughout. And because of the taut-scripting, because of Shannon's sweatily ambiguous turn, the desired result is achieved. It isn't until the very final shot of the film, reflected in the wife of Shannon's character, that we finally learn the truth about the man's mental state. We'll keep the spoilers at a minimum for those who've criminally failed to TAKE SHELTER already, and instead implore you to check out what we consider Shannon's most psychologically exigent role to date. And once you indeed TAKE SHELTER for yourself, we wholeheartedly urge you to peep the rest of the Nichols-Shannon canon, as every flick is not only vastly different from one another, there all of a quality we simply don't see that often from auteur filmmakers anymore. And it's Shannon who consistently holds them all down!


What about KANGAROO JACK? JONAH HEX. PEARL HARBOR. BAD BOYS II. Nah, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. Fielder's choice. The point being this, Michael Shannon is, like most serious dramatic actors, far more compelling when doing small, character driven indie work as opposed to bloated big-budget action junk…namely under the direction of Michael Bay. The sequels, the stolid superhero joints, the $100 million live-action cartoons, this is simply where Shannon earns enough green to allow him to go off an make an interesting off-beat indie, a la THE ICEMAN or 99 HOMES. But here's where The Shan gets off a bit light. The dude never really takes a starring role in of these marvelous debacles. He tends to go relatively unnoticed as a bit player in the big-budget dross, yet still somehow manages to do just enough to remain memorable. JONAH HEX is a perfect example of such, as it not only amounted to one of the most expensive and disappointing big-budget adaptations, but even among its stellar cast, Shannon stole his few scenes and totally made them his own. It's no easy fear swinging dicks with Brolin, Fassbender and Malkovich, but that's precisely the kind of company Shannon is able to keep…no matter the movie!



Aside from the qualitative consistency, the diversity, the sheer believability across a wide swath of parts played, it has to be the physical demeanor of Shannon's that's proven most salient, the kind that in turn informs what roles he ought to play. That is, he has such a unique face, such one of a kind line delivery, such oddly inherent charisma, that it seems the types of roles he gets are tailor made for these exact attributes. The dude's basically the 21st century Christopher Walken. Think of how perfectly cast he was in PREMIUM RUSH. I swear, the guy was to Gordon Levitt as Walken was to Depp in NICK OF TIME. Same guy!

Or how about THE ICEMAN for example, what a perfectly cast part, the very kind that allows Shannon to naturally attune his physical instrument for playing all the right notes and pitches of the character. If you've not seen the flick, do so, as it's based on the real life story of Richard Kuklinski – a mob-affiliated hit-man known the world over for his exacting, cold-blooded approach to professional contract-killing. It's another terrifying turn from Shannon, who also still manages to imbue his character with heartfelt humanity as a dedicated family man trying desperately to keep his loved ones out of danger.



I've still yet to recover from the one time I watched BUG with my friend John at his house one day. It's that lingeringly infectious. And honestly, before that day, I hadn't even heard of Michael Shannon. All I knew going in was Ashley Judd was starring in a new thriller by the great William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST, SORCERER). What I didn't realize was what a mortifying metaphor the entire film was for the odious disease that is drug addiction. The BUG the title refers to is the sickness of addiction itself – the virus, or bug – that plagues so many. Of course, it's an opaquely veiled allegory, which not only makes the movie that much more tense and suspenseful, but ultimately, as a non-preachy message movie, that much more powerful.

And the performance Shannon turns brilliantly captivating, as compelling and complicated as anything he's done to date. The inner demons he allows to bubble up to the surface of his Iraq war veteran…the increasing paranoia, the pathological unraveling, the obsessive-compulsive self-destruction, the scabrous physical decay, the picking and plucking at his own skin…for those with any knowledge of drug abuse and what it does to loved ones knows this is a performance than just about any out-and-out horror joint could ever dream of eliciting. The way he connives and manipulates poor Ashley Judd's character, fueling her own addictive tendencies, pushing her limit to the absolute tweaking point…really, BUG is about as disturbing as a movie this side of REQUEIM FOR A DREAM. And in it, Shan's the man!


But in order to get your fill, we urge y'all to unbundle THE HARVEST, an 2013 indie thriller Shannon made with John McNaughton (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, WILD THINGS) in the director's first feature in 12 years. Despite our man C.Bum giving the film a paltry 5/10 due to one insipid character motivation he couldn't quite forgive, THE HARVEST has actually culled quite a good reputation from critics in the past few years. Shannon plays a RN, Samantha Morton his M.D. wife, and their lonely son is soon visited by a new next door neighbor named Maryann. Disallowing more visits by the parents, Maryann continues to see the boy, sneaking into his room at night and playing videogames, etc. When the two docs leave the house and return home sooner than expected, Maryann is not only trapped inside, but discovers a harrowing secret kept at bay in the basement. No more spoiling, save to say that THE HARVEST and DON'T BREATHE have more in common that might otherwise suspected. Pick up and plunge into THE HARVEST if you've not already, Shannon is in top form once again!


Astoundingly, Shannon filmed 11 movies slated for 2016 release. One that's currently in theaters, COMPLETE UNKNOWN, was written and directed by Joshua Marston (MARIA FULL OF GRACE). Costarring Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover – COMPLETE UNKNOWN is:

A shape-shifting tale of the perils and pleasures of self-reinvention begins at a dinner party, when Tom's (Michael Shannon) co-worker arrives with an intriguing date named Alice (Rachel Weisz). Tom is convinced he knows her, but she refuses to acknowledge their history. And when Alice makes a hasty exit, Tom sets off after her. What follows is an all-night odyssey shared by two people, one needing to change his life, the other questioning how to stop changing.

Even more exciting, fresh off nabbing the coveted Grand Jury Prize at this year's Venice Film Festival, Shannon looks to light up the big screen once more this award season in Tom Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Locking horns with fellow Dissection victim Jake Gyllenhaal, based on the celebrated Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS should adhere closely to:

A "story inside a story," in which the first part follows a woman named Susan who receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband, a man whom she left 20 years earlier, asking for her opinion. The second element follows the actual manuscript, called "Nocturnal Animals," which revolves around a man whose family vacation turns violent and deadly. It also continues to follow the story of Susan, who finds herself recalling her first marriage and confronting some dark truths about herself.

Michael Sheen, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Andrea Riseborough, Karl Glusman and Aaron-Taylor Johnson all costar in the film, which is slated for North American release on December 9, 2016.

But that's not all for the ol' Shan. Not even close. The man is currently filming a pair of projects (Guillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER and STATE LIKE SLEEP), already wrapped another (POTTERSVILLE) and is still awaiting release on his third Werner Herzog collaboration, an eco-thriller The Hollywood Reporter didn't think too kindly of called SALT AND FIRE. Here's the breakdown for that one:

A scientist blames the head of a large company for an ecological disaster in South America. But when a volcano begins to show signs of erupting, they must unite to avoid a disaster.

Herzog costars along with Gael Garcia Bernal. SALT AND FIRE is scheduled to screen at this year's Fantastic Fest, so stay posted!



The following list can tell the story far better than I ever could: Scorsese, Stone, Mendes, Ramis, Crowe, Waters, Hanson, Friedkin, Lumet, Herzog, Forster, del Toro. Shannon's worked with them all. Some more than once. Simply put, over two-decades, Michael Shannon as been one of the most accomplished and sought after character actors for some of the all time best directors to ever focus a frame. As a result, Shannon is easily one of our favorite actors working in film today. Flicks including VANILLA SKY, DEAD BIRDS, CRIMINAL, BUG, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD, SHOTGUN STORIES, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, MY SON MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE, TAKE SHELTER, THE ICEMAN, PREMIUM RUSH, THE HARVEST, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and of course, the towering TV role on Boardwalk Empire have all demonstrated Shannon's multitalented attributes. And that's just in-genre! Here's hoping the next 20 years of Shannon's career are even better than the first 20. Keep it up Mike, you're one of the best ones doing it right now!

Source: AITH

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.