It must be the eyes. There’s wildness in them. I’d seen Michael Shannon in about half a dozen movies before I saw him in World Trade Center, where he plays a real-life Marine who saw the wreckage in Manhattan on 9/11, got in his car, and drove down to the World Trade Center site to pitch in. This was a heroic action, yet in the movie there’s something unnerving about this man, and the main thing is that he’s played by Michael Shannon, a character actor who specializes in wild-eyed zeal, whether he’s saving cops in World Trade Center, attempting to work as a punk-rock Svengali in The Runaways, hunting down Superman in Man Of Steel, or warning his community about the coming apocalypse in Take Shelter.
Take Shelter was written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It was his second film, and his second with Shannon. So far those running totals have remained the same, because Nichols has yet to make a feature film without Shannon; their fifth film together, Loving, is in theaters right now. It would be an exaggeration to say that under the direction of Nichols, character actor Shannon gets to take the spotlight as a star, because by this point, Shannon has starred in some movies apart from Nichols—and for that matter, he sticks to character-actor-sized roles in two of his Nichols movies. (In Loving, he spends around five minutes on screen.) But as a constant in the Nichols filmography, Shannon has managed to expand and deepen his character actor persona.
Before he could do that, though, he had to define the persona in question, and in its most intense moments, Take Shelter does the job. Shannon has played plenty of normal guys (check out his work in the little-seen Return, where he counterintuitively does not play the returning soldier haunted by war, but instead the soldier’s levelheaded spouse), and also plenty of glorious nutbars (Premium Rush; the TV series Boardwalk Empire). Take Shelter brings him from one extreme to the other. He plays Curtis, a husband and father who works in construction and finds himself plagued by visions of an apocalyptic storm.
The movie generates suspense from the question of whether Curtis is having genuinely predictive visions or quickly succumbing to mental health problems that run in his family. Early on, Nichols uses his sound design to evoke Curtis’ addled state of mind, making smooth (and, as such, disorienting) transitions from the sound of rain in a dream to the sound of a shower head in real life to the sound of eggs cooking in a pan. Early on, Curtis doesn’t talk about his visions and bad dreams, blaming their physical effects on a vague sickness and keeping his wife (Jessica Chastain) in the dark. His visions of brownish rains, enormous storm clouds, and swirls of berserk birds are scarier because Shannon’s face shows him bottling up his emotions.
The most famous and Michael Shannon-y scene in Take Shelter, though, isn’t nearly so quiet. When confronted by a former friend at a community dinner, Curtis gets into a physical altercation and, pushed to his limits, finally, fully flips out. For Shannon fans, this is probably his most indelible moment on film, as he screams that “NOT A ONE OF YOU” is prepared for the coming storm. Take Shelter isn’t really a “fun” movie, and it would be a stretch to interpret this frightening breakdown as a delight. Shannon isn’t such a pervasive oddball, especially in this movie, that this outburst feels like hammy shtick. But there is an undeniable cathartic pleasure in watching Shannon’s character let go of his repression and just shriek out what’s on his mind. Shannon is too compelling an actor for the moment not to be viscerally satisfying.
But the real depth of this scene comes afterward. Following this mini-monologue that sounds and looks like a crazed preacher going on about hellfire and damnation, Shannon recedes. He goes quiet, embraces his wife and child, and begins to weep. His tirade begins in a long shot, with the crowd of friends and neighbors in full view, but when Curtis breaks down, Nichols stays closer, and even after the family exits the frame, the rest of the world stays out of focus. Shannon’s performance is fully committed, but Nichols’ direction of the scene adds emotional heft to what could be merely a showcase for his actor’s magnetism.
The ability to get righteously furious can be a dangerous one in an actor. A lot of movie stars seem to enjoy the give-me-back-my-kid subgenre—the opportunity to go to histrionic and extreme lengths in the name of saving onscreen kin. Shannon is one of the few actors who can express those emotions at length without seeming to relish it a little too much, in part because it seems possible that his efforts will cost him his mind and in part because (apocalyptic outburst notwithstanding) Nichols doesn’t gravitate toward that kind of melodrama, even when his story seems to call for it.
Roy, Shannon’s character in Midnight Special, is on the run specifically to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), whose mysterious powers have made him an important figure to a creepy cult. Roy and Alton are introduced as news audio about a kidnapping runs over footage of sketchy-looking guys and a stockpile of weapons in a motel room; Nichols is toying with the expectation that Shannon will be unhinged (as in Take Shelter) and/or a lowlife (as in so many movies). As in Take Shelter, Shannon’s character has the conviction of a terrifying true believer. But in Midnight Special, he seems protective, rather than overbearing; his intensity comes more from his drive to keep his son safe than the fear that he won’t be able to. Late in the movie, Alton says that he doesn’t want his father to worry about him. Nichols gives Shannon the best, most heartfelt line in the movie in response: “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” he says. “I like worrying about you.” It’s as succinct and beautiful a description of parenthood as I’ve ever come across in a movie.
Not all of Midnight Special lives up to this moment. The film is essentially Nichols’ cover of early Spielberg, combining elements of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., and The Sugarland Express. But whether he intends it or not, the Nichols version plays as much like a rebuke of Spielberg as a tribute to him. Spielberg has a reputation for giving the audience too much—too much prompting, too much emotion, too much spectacle. Nichols is too pointedly disinclined to do this, and in Midnight Special, he restrains himself to such a degree that he doesn’t take full advantage of his story, imagery, or characters.
He also doesn’t necessarily do his actors much of a favor by keeping so much of the movie so elusive. Midnight Special is far from impossible to follow; it’s more ambiguous in the manner of a Lost episode, where the characters’ resistance to asking normal questions borders on absurd. Shannon deserves a movie that can at least occasionally equal his passion, rather than playing close to the vest before basically turning into the Tomorrowland movie at the finish. There’s a similarly methodical quality to the mounting dread of Take Shelter that sometimes makes the movie drag, but its familial and, especially, economic anxieties are so clear that some workmanlike withholding doesn’t take away from its power.
Nichols’ preference for leaving some details unspoken and motivations unsaid works better in Loving, which seems determined, even more so than Midnight Special, to elide the touchstones of its genre. It’s essentially a love story without courtship fused with a courtroom drama featuring minimal courtroom footage (where the main characters aren’t even in the courtroom for the climactic verdict). At times, it even seems to be ribbing the urgency often manufactured by this kind of true-life drama. Shannon’s small role fits with this strategy: He plays a photographer for LIFE whose work brings pivotal attention to the Lovings’ case, in scenes that are quiet and offhand and, indeed, actually about the process of the photographer attempting not to disrupt his subjects’ lives as he takes their picture.
The obvious way to use Shannon as a character actor would be to cast him as a henchman or bad guy (Premium Rush, for example, cleverly positions him as, essentially, a bad guy functioning as his own incompetent henchman). But when Nichols gives Shannon a small part in movies like Loving and Mud, he emphasizes his gentleness and warmth. There’s gentleness in Midnight Special, too, and probably more warmth in Roy than the “shit-heel uncle” Shannon plays in a bit part in Mud, but Shannon’s performing style in the latter is laid-back, even welcoming. At one point, he emerges shirtless from his home following an angry sort-of girlfriend, and while the obvious choice might be to play the scene as aggressive and hostile, Shannon hangs back. He doesn’t play up the creep factor, though some of his other parts show that he’s more than capable of getting laughs while doing so. His restraint makes a deadbeat character seem relatively stable and normal.
It’s not far removed from Shannon’s first part for Nichols, in his debut Shotgun Stories (which sits with Mud as the Nichols film most akin to the work of fellow indie Southerner David Gordon Green, who also produced Shotgun). Shotgun also presents Shannon casually shirtless, hillbilly style, early on; his character, Son Hayes, is not a man of extravagant means. But he’s also playing the de facto leader of a trio of brothers who have long since been abandoned by their alcoholic father, who eventually quit drinking and started over with a whole new family (producing three nominally more upstanding sons in the process). Among the rejected Hayes brothers, Son is the one who actually has a proper home; the movie begins with one of his brothers living in a tent and the other, like Matt Foley before him, in a van down by the river.
Early in the film, the estranged Hayes patriarch dies, and Son’s insistence on attending and speaking ill at the funeral sets in motion a series of escalating confrontations between the two sets of Hayes boys. The movie builds from a low-key, often funny slice of lower-middle-class life to an ominous chronicle of family vengeance. In retrospect, it’s fascinating to see Shannon essentially sidelined for the movie’s climactic moments; in what would turn out to be a regular occurrence in his non-Shelter collaborations with Nichols, the movie never fully detonates him. Shotgun Stories was made around the same time as World Trade Center, but Shannon’s eyes have a weariness in the former that’s quieter than the zeal powering his work in the latter and some of his other, showier parts.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t still reach some extremes. Shotgun Stories, like Shannon’s other two leading roles for Nichols, puts the actor in the position of doing what he feels is necessary to defend his family, no matter how ill-advised those actions may seem. This, in the end, appears to be how Nichols sees his frequent leading man: as a guy willing to follow his convictions, regardless of whether that makes him seem warm, menacing, or some kind of anguished in-between. Not all of Shannon’s other roles have this degree of nuance; that would be a tall order for a major star, and he occupies a space somewhere between there and character actor. But character actors depend on the accumulation of roles creating a cross-movie shorthand—familiarity, but not necessarily intimacy. Watching Shannon in Jeff Nichols movies, even when the movies themselves don’t completely work, enhances his work elsewhere. It’s easier to believe the motivations of a character like his Zod in Man Of Steel or his fictional cop in the recent Nocturnal Animals with his experiences and tribulations in Jeff Nichols’ South buzzing behind those true-believer eyes.
Next time: A pair of baby boomers dabble in comedy and drama.