I recently appeared on the As You Watch podcast with Nick of the Cinematic Katzenjammer and Vern of Vern’s Video Vangaurd [sic] and Vern’s Video Vortex (unfortunately their co-host, Joe of Two Dude Review, was unable to make it). The show, which was a ton of fun, was dedicated to one of my favourite actors working today, Michael Shannon. We each gave our top 3 Michael Shannon performances, but I felt that didn’t scratch my Shannon itch, so I’ve compiled my list of his films instead. This is a completely different list to that of the podcast (though there’s some crossover) so be sure to check the podcast out on the link above.
Why is Shannon one of my favourite actors? Well, he’s really great at playing complex characters – usually ones that are either potentially insane or devoted and driven by some moral compass that leads to powerful, passionate performances from even his smallest roles. He improves anything he’s involved with – even disappointing efforts like Man of Steel, and is always an interesting presence on screen. Now remember, this is a list of his best films, not necessarily his best roles, he just happens to be in them somewhere…
I can’t talk about Michael Shannon without mentioning Boardwalk Empire, regardless of it being a TV show. I’ve just finished watching Season 2 of the show (I’ve got season 3 ready and waiting, just as soon as I’ve finished the final season of Breaking Bad), and so far I really like it. To be fair, the storylines aren’t great, and there’s a tendency to focus on some of the less interesting characters – Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), I’m talking about you – but there’s enough great actors, terrific acting and certain plot developments to keep me coming back for more. I here Jeffrey Wright and Bobby Cannavale appear in future seasons, so there’s no way I’m backing away any time soon. I’d just appreciate a little more Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and Chalky White (Michael K. Williams).
This collaboration between director Werner Herzog and producer David Lynch is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. Shannon plays Brad Macallam, a man who has just killed his mother with an antique sword, before walking home across the road and taking two hostages. The police, led by Detectives Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) and Vargas (Michael Pena), find themselves in a siege situation, and call in Brad’s girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) and his theatre director (Udo Kier) to help. It’s about as crazy as you’d expect a Herzog/Lynch hostage drama to be, complete with flashbacks to just why Brad has gone a bit nuts, but whilst there’s some interesting developments and some great performances, this isn’t a film I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Premium Rush is by no means a perfect film, far from it, in fact. It follows New York bicycle courier Wiley (you know, like the coyote, get it? Get it? GOT IT? This film really wants you to understand that he’s names after a cartoon character,) as he picks up a lucrative package and must deliver it by a deadline, only Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop needs it too, and he has a car. There are some decent action sequences and a great method of keeping the pace up – despite multiple flashbacks, it actually runs in real time – but even with all this I just really, really wanted Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character to die a horrible death. I’m a cyclist, but not the kind you see in this film, because I actually show some consideration towards the other road users. Wiley, on the other hand, sees them as nothing but potential obstacles that could slow him down, and should therefore be avoided at all costs, especially if those costs are to other people. His vehicle of choice has no gears or brakes, so stopping or steering at the last minute cannot be achieved, and at several moments he displays a kind of Spidey-sense where he predicts the optimum path through vehicles and pedestrians that will see him least likely to die. When the inevitable happens and he eventually is involved in a collision, it is so damn satisfying, but not enough to make up for the rest of the time.
Shannon’s first of three collaborations with director Jeff Nichols saw him play the eldest of three brothers abandoned by their father, who left them with a mother who ignored them, as their father had another family elsewhere. They didn’t even see fit to properly naming their children, who resulted in being called Son (Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). When their father dies and his chosen family put on a modest funeral, things come to a head when Son attends and gives a fitting eulogy, complete with spitting on his father’s grave, which his half-brothers are not entirely grateful for, so a family war ensues that not everyone walks away from. This is a fairly middle-of-the-road drama, with not much going for it other than the performances from an almost entirely unknown cast, but there isn’t anything overly wrong with it either.
As I discussed on the As You Watch episode, Michael Shannon is great at playing one of two character types, He is either someone driven by their morals and beliefs – see Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire or Zod in Man of Steel, or he’s a man who is potentially insane, and thoughout the film either he, the other characters or we, the audience, will learn just how nuts he is. Bug features the epitome of his is-he-crazy? characters, as he plays a drifter who enters the life of Ashley Judd’s lonely waitress, but brings with him the possible infestation of bugs that may be the result of government testing. Judd’s Agnes suffers a slow descent into madness, not helped by the return of her convict ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), and by the end everything has gone completely nuts. An interesting piece from William Friedkin that’s worth a watch.
Shannon’s highest profile lead role is in this under-seen biopic from only last year, in which he played Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who also attempted to have a wife and kids on the side. It’s a flawed film, but the performances are wonderful. and come from unexpected sources. Chris Evans is awesome, and unrecognisable.
Sidney Lumet has made some masterpieces in his time, but unfortunately his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, doesn’t crack his top 5, but then when you consider his career includes 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict, well that’s a tough top 5 to beat. It tells the story of two brothers (Ethan Hawke and the sadly departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) who plan to rob the jewelry store owned by their own parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), but everything falls apart when the robbery doesn’t go as planned. The fractured narrative occasionally gets a little confusing, but the performances are wonderful, as is Shannon in a relatively small yet characteristically intense role.
Spoiler warnign for the aforementioned podcast, but this is my favourite of Michael Shannon’s roles, and it’s also currently his only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2009. He was up against Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, so he had no real shot of winning, but it’s good to know he was at least nominated as he flat out walks away with the movie, despite only being in a couple of scenes. Revolutionary Road is about a young couple (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) who buy a house on Revolutionary Road with grand plans for how their life will be, but unfortunately life repeatedly gets in the way and their relationship frays along with it. Shannon is a recently released mental patient and the son of their realtor (Kathy Bates), who comes round to dinner one day, unleashing one of the greatest dining scenes of recent years, with Shannon cutting through the lives of the seemingly happy couple. It’s such a great scene, and whilst the rest of the film can occasionally get bogged down in melodrama, some key scenes, along with the acting on display and the overall look of the film make for a worthwhile viewing experience.
3. Take Shelter
Shannon’s second collaboration with Jeff Nichols once again saw him in the lead role, this time as Curtis, a construction worker who starts to have visions of the world ending, so he sets about reinforcing the bunker he has in his garden, to protect himself, his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their young daughter (Tova Stewart). This is another is-he-crazy? role, but it’s unique amongst Shannon’s filmography for being an example where he himself is unsure as to whether he is losing his mind or not. Usually the character he plays is sure of themself, with those around him being perplexed as to the nature of his sanity, but here he shows real doubts about the lengths he is going to, but he feels compelled to complete them nonetheless, regardless of the cost. There’s another priceless Shannon/dinner flip-out scene too, that’s certainly not to be missed, and the ending is pretty much perfectly handled.
The relatively small role Shannon plays in Mud, his third collaboration with Jeff Nichols, does not in any respect reflect negatively on the quality of this film. Matthew McConaughey continued his career renaissance as the eponymous drifter living in a tree, who is discovered by two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland). Neither kid has the best father figure – Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) is emasculated by his wife (Sarah Paulson) as he can no longer provide for his family, whilst Neckbone lives with his uncle (Shannon), a womanising layabout who is doing the best he can with a bad situation, so Mud becomes something of a surrogate father to the two, but one who needs more from them than they need from him. As with Shotgun Stories before it this explored the deep bonds between fathers and sons in all varieties, and whilst many aspects of the climax were visible from a mile away, this was still a great film from last year.
As before, do not judge this on the lack of Shannon’s screen time, as this was his first role not in a made-for-TV production. If you don’t remember, he’s the happily-married Wrestlemania fan who Bill Murray’s grumpy weatherman helps out on his perfect day. Forget about that; Shannon’s involvement has very little to do with the film, it just happens to be a movie I absolutely adore, and will watch over and over and over again.