Michael Shannon: 5 of His Best Movie Roles

Many viewers might have never seen Michael Shannon’s distinct, often tortured facade until he made his comic book movie debut as the central villain in 2013’s Man of Steel, but the actor actually made his film debut as one of the townspeople in the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, all the way back in 1993. Ever since then, Shannon has been quietly proving himself as one of the most talented and overlooked of Hollywood’s character actors. This week’s release of the Spielberg-inspired Midnight Special may soon propel him one step closer to bonafide stardom, so let’s celebrate his increased visibility by looking back at a few of his strongest career accomplishments so far, beginning with the obvious.

1. Man of Steel

Source: Warner Bros

Source: Warner Bros

Audiences found plenty to complain about in Zack Snyder’s brooding Superman adaptation Man of Steel, but Michael Shannon did some of his biggest and best work in the adversarial role, as the vengeful Kryptonian military commander General Zod. In spite of a few hammy, over-the-top line readings (“I WILL FIND HIM!”), Shannon proved himself more than capable of taking over the iconic role since he was last portrayed in film by English actor Terence Stamp. Every second of his screen time is filled with the sort of angry menace that helps to make a villain memorable, as Shannon uses nothing more than his dark facial expression and physicality most of the time to suggest the imposing threat Zod represents to our hero.

2. Take Shelter

So far, Michael Shannon has appeared in every one of director Jeff Nichols’s four films, including the forthcoming Midnight Special. Their already impressive partnership as actor and director most notably produced Take Shelter, a great film and arguably the perfect showcase for Shannon’s unique talents as an actor. He plays Curtis, a hardworking husband and father whose dreams are plagued with apparent visions of a coming apocalypse. Even as he embarks upon building a structure to save them all, his wife worries that this paranoia may be due to encroaching mental health problems. Shannon was praised for his ability to balance his performance between good sense and possible delusions, suggesting the fear of his own actions slowly manifesting throughout the film, with Roger Ebert commenting that “while appearing to be a stable husband and father with a good job in construction, he also can evoke by his eyes and manner a deep unease.”

3. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Jeff Nichols isn’t the only director of note Shannon has attracted with his considerable acting chops. He headlined this divisive thriller from the German auteur Werner Herzog, wherein he hits some of the same notes he did two years later with Take Shelter, playing a somewhat ordinary man confronted by otherworldly events who seems unable to control his own destiny. Here, the plot structure allow for plenty more thrills and tension as a true crime drives Shannon’s disturbed Brad Macallam to commit the murder of his mother and take several neighbors hostage when police soon arrive on the scene. Shannon’s intense gaze often makes the performance and recalls another of Herzog’s most famous collaborators, the insane and insanely talented Klaus Kinski.

4. 99 Homes

The decidedly topical story of a family faced with eviction from their Florida home found an amazingly complex villain in the performance of Michael Shannon as businessman Rick Carver, the man doing the evicting, who could easily have become a one-note caricature of greed in the hands of a less capable actor. Andrew Garfield plays the father of the central family, who manages to save his family by becoming Carver’s assistant and lowering himself to his level, exploiting homeowners and building codes to make a quick buck. Shannon was nominated for multiple supporting actor awards, including a Golden Globe, for his performance as Rick, which manages to find the small vulnerabilities of a despicable characters without ever softening his hard, villainous edges.

5. Bug

William Friedkin, the man best known for taking the helm on such legendary film classics as The Exorcist and The French Connection, directed this psychological horror adapted from a play by Tracy Letts of the same name. Again, Michael Shannon proves himself adept at playing characters with implied mental health issues and making them honest and relateable in their tortured madness, as he takes on the role of Peter Evans, a drifter who believes the government experimented on him during his time in the military and is still monitoring his every move. Shannon manages to capture the character completely in every moment onscreen, even as he evolves in the viewer’s eye from a well-intentioned drifter into something far more menacing and terrifying. The film relies heavily upon the honesty of his performance and the tension his instability brings to the proceedings, and the film works in large part thanks to Shannon.

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