With this weekend’s Midnight Special, Michael Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nichols reunite for their fourth feature — and if early reviews are any indication, it’ll join its predecessors in earning Certified Fresh status. In anticipation of Special’s arrival, we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s feature to a look at some of the many highlights from Shannon’s still-growing filmography — a group that includes collaborations with Nichols as well as an array of other fortunate filmmakers. It’s time for Total Recall!
Shannon started his series of critically acclaimed collaborations with writer-director Jeff Nichols with 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which traces the fault lines in a pair of families who are left behind to sift through the emotional wreckage after the death of the father who abandoned one home to start another. Laced with the violence and unforgiving anger reflected by its title, Shotgun uses an awful situation to explore a series of uncomfortable truths about family dynamics and the human condition; as Roger Ebert observed, “Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic.”
Shannon earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work as an allegedly crazy neighbor in Revolutionary Road, a 2008 period drama about the unraveling of a middle-class marriage between two suburbanites in 1950s America. Directed by Sam Mendes, Road didn’t win any points for cheeriness — in fact, a good number of critics were turned off by the grueling series of disappointments faced by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the central roles — but on the whole, Justin Haythe’s screenplay, Mendes’ direction, and the performances of a talented cast helped make the medicine go down. Calling it “bitter, nerve-wracking, ugly and relentless,” Detroit News critic Tom Long wrote, “Revolutionary Road is Big Drama done right, a mesmerizing look at desperate lives, wrong moves and spoiled dreams that hits hard right from the beginning and never lets up.”
Shannon hasn’t done a lot of television, but he knows a solid small-screen opportunity when he sees one, as evidenced by the 35 episodes he filmed for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Part of the cable network’s award-winning slate of 21st century original programming, the Prohibition-set period drama starred Steve Buscemi as “Nucky” Thompson, a corrupt Atlantic City treasurer whose position puts him in contact with some of the era’s most notorious gangsters — and makes him susceptible to large-scale corruption. As Nelson van Alden, a former Prohibition officer leading a double life as a bootlegger, Shannon shared screen time with a talented ensemble that also included Michael Pitt and Kelly Macdonald, and enjoyed his share of five seasons’ worth of critical acclaim.
Before they were solo stars, Joan Jett and Lita Ford were members of the all-female rock group the Runaways — and their fascinating, turbulent, and often rather lurid story can’t be told without making room for their larger-than-life manager, Kim Fowley. While Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning received the lion’s share of The Runaways’ pre-release attention after they were cast as Jett and Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie, many critics felt Shannon stole the film with his performance as Fowley, which captured his provocative essence without delving into the dark side that later came to define his public persona. As Ann Hornaday argued for the Washington Post, “While Jett and Currie emerge as blurry, half-formed characters, Shannon’s Fowley brings the contradictions the Runaways embodied into sharp, biting focus.”
A number of films have given viewers a look at the difficulties of readjusting to civilian life for combat veterans, but they mostly focus on male veterans. A notable exception is writer-director Liza Johnson’s Return, starring Linda Cardellini as a reservist who comes home after a tour of duty in the Middle East only to discover that things have changed — she struggles to cope with the boredom of her job and the demands of her children, all while coming to terms with the growing distance between herself and her husband (Shannon). Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times was one of my critics singling out Shannon’s performance for praise, writing, “Michael Shannon steals the film — when does he not? — as the loving, frustrated husband whose fuse is burning short.”
The world wasn’t exactly crying out for a new bike-messenger drama after Kevin Bacon’s Quicksilver went skidding into the box office guardrails in 1986, but with 2012’s Premium Rush, director/co-writer David Koepp proved the subgenre still had stories left to tell. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a law school grad who dodges the bar with his low-responsibility, high-risk gig as a bike messenger, Rush adds an extra jolt of adrenaline courtesy of a subplot involving a particularly valuable package being chased by a corrupt cop (Shannon) who’ll retrieve it at any cost. Praising the end result as “stuffed with zingers and zippy stunts,” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “It comes with pretty young things of all hues and hair types – few prettier than its lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – and start-to-finish clever special effects, none more clever or special than Michael Shannon.”
A year after reuniting with Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols for Take Shelter, Shannon joined Nichols for their third collaboration, taking a supporting role in 2013’s critically acclaimed Mud. Here, Shannon plays Galen, uncle to one of the boys who stumble upon the title character (played by Matthew McConaughey) after discovering the home he’s made for himself in a boat that was stranded in a tree by a flood. Arriving during a particularly busy time in Shannon’s career — it made its festival debut the same year he released Premium Rush and The Iceman — it doesn’t offer as much screen time as other films he’s made with Nichols, but his presence is part of the rich, Twain-inspired canvas that helped make it one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. As Joe Morgenstern argued for the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a movie that holds out hope for the movies’ future.”
Shannon’s intense screen presence makes him an ideal pick for a movie about an infamous hitman, and The Iceman — inspired by the real-life story of prodigiously homicidal killer Richard Kuklinski — would definitely seem to fit the bill. Unfortunately, a good many critics agreed that director/co-writer Ariel Vromen’s take on the Kuklinski story didn’t really live up to its potential, sacrificing some of its stranger-than-fiction energy for the sake of delivering yet another largely generic picture about the evil that men do. The Iceman’s saving grace, unsurprisingly, was Shannon’s performance, which vested the character with suitably chilling life even when the film didn’t seem to know what to do with him. As Dana Stevens wrote for Slate, “Shannon inhabits this character so completely that by the end of this hard-to-watch, hard-to-look-away-from movie you feel you can, if not understand Richie, at least wish he had found some redemption in life.”
The messy bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 serves as the backdrop for this harrowing drama from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, which uses the eviction of struggling single father Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) to set up a knotty conflict that doubles as a troubling microcosm for modern American economics. After being displaced from his home by real estate broker Rick Carver (Shannon), Nash is given the chance to get back on his feet — and regain possession of his home — by working on Carver’s crew, which sets in motion a chain of events that improves his family’s financial health while threatening to upend Nash’s moral compass. “Bahrani shows what happens when it becomes more profitable to yoink away the American Dream than it is to encourage people to buy into it,” wrote Alan Scherstuhl for the Village Voice. “Shannon shows us the toll that that yoinking etches in the face, the mind, the soul.”