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Michael Shannon’s Night Moves

The Oscar-nominated ‘Nocturnal Animals’ actor is a master at controlling the uncontrollable aspects of the human psyche

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.

Imagine a scale, ranging from one to 100, measuring the fever pitch of actors making public statements about Donald Trump. At less than zero, you’d find the “give him a chance” contingent headed up by Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey (pick your favorite “alt right alt right alt right” tweet; they’re all good); creep into the positive integers and you’ll eventually work your way up to Robert “I’d like to punch Donald Trump in the face” De Niro and Sarah “ONCE THE MILITARY IS W US FASCISTS GET OVERTHROWN” Silverman.

And then there is Michael Shannon. Last November, fresh off the results of the election, the 42-year-old actor turned a publicity tour for Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals into an awe-inspiring, scorched-earth performance piece. In a series of interviews with major media outlets, Shannon treated interviewers to comments about “The Orange Man” and the “United States of Moronic Fucking Assholes” and such choice observations as telling the children of Trump voters they are orphans and advising seniors who voted for Trump that it’s time for “the urn.”

Now that Shannon has a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Nocturnal Animals — and considering that this year’s Oscar ceremony promises to be perhaps the most explicitly politicized of the modern era — the possibility exists for an acceptance speech that would not just reach the top of our imaginary thespian-outrage thermometer but break it, sending mercury hurtling into the atmosphere.

The over-the-top reaction is a Michael Shannon specialty. This is not the same thing as implying that he’s an over-actor. Shannon is attracted to parts that give him room to stretch out his talents. His voice is slow and thick (he’d be a great Buffalo Bill) but when he builds up a head of steam, he’s a kamikaze screamer. His face has a cast-iron solidity that rubberizes on command. His elongated body is built like a lightning rod. What makes him so exciting is the sense of impulsive instincts filtered through impeccable technical control. Some performers just hammer the audience relentlessly. Shannon’s got rhythm: He’s Buddy Rich when he flies off the handle.

At the tender age of 18, Shannon made his movie debut in Groundhog Day, in what might generously be billed as a bit part. He’s credited as “Fred,” one of the many humble Punxsatawnians bouncing harmlessly off of Bill Murray’s existentially rooked weatherman as he suffers through an eternity of February 2s. Fred’s dialogue comes right near the end of the film when he — a character we’ve met only once before, for less than 10 seconds — is presented by his new friend with a very special gift. Suffice it to say Shannon made the most of his opportunity.

Some would argue that there’s nowhere for an actor to go but down once he’s played a scene when he sweeps his high school sweetheart into his arms on the road to WrestleMania. Thankfully, Shannon found the inspiration to keep honing his craft. After cutting his teeth in theater companies in Chicago (and founding his own group, A Red Orchid Theatre, in 1993), Shannon kept popping up in the background of turn-of-the-millennium Hollywood movies as a reliably unsettling presence. He was Eminem’s contemptible trailer-park stepdad in 8 Mile and a grotesque white supremacist in Bad Boys II. But the first director to really harness — and then unleash — Shannon’s gifts was William Friedkin, who cast him in the film version of Tracy Letts’s 1996 play, Bug, as a paranoid drifter — a role he had originated onstage.

As the hallucination-addled Army deserter Peter Evans — who believes that he was the subject of clandestine military experiments and that he had insects surgically inserted into his teeth, among other things — Shannon gives a master class in madness. He inhabits Peter’s delusions without condescending to them and moves around the cramped, tin-foil-lined hotel room he shares with costar Ashley Judd with sharp, staccato body language that weaponizes his lanky frame. If the claustrophobic staging and psychological terror of Bug recalled Friedkin’s work in The Exorcist, his star’s acting had a supernatural intensity that superseded anything from the earlier classic. To watch Shannon in Bug was to see a man possessed.

After Bug, Shannon grabbed Christopher Walken’s old championship belt as Hollywood’s go-to wild man. He hasn’t relinquished it since. Ranking the insanity factor of Shannon’s featured roles in the past decade would require its own scale with gradations including uncanny impersonations of famous head cases (music-biz scumbag Kim Fowley in The Runaways, serial killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, and the King in Elvis & Nixon); Harvey Keitel–style Bad Lieutenants (Premium Rush and Boardwalk Empire); comic-book maniacs (Jonah Hex and Man of Steel); candidates for electroshock therapy (Revolutionary Road); a hard-drinking, custom-tailored incarnation of Satan in a modern retelling of the Faust legend (99 Homes); and, in a tour de force for the ages, an incensed Delta Gamma mass-emailing her sorority sisters:

This willingness to spoof his own persona here and elsewhere suggests a healthy self-awareness on Shannon’s part. There’s often comedy baked into his freak-outs, especially on Boardwalk Empire, where he turned the deranged Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden into an intermittently hilarious study in repressed — and released — tension. At the same time, he’s also capable of quiet, finely shaded acting, as in Jeff Nichols’s 2007 feature debut, Shotgun Stories, where he implodes beautifully as the eldest of three brothers locked in a small-town blood feud with their stepsiblings.

Nichols and Shannon have since formed a fine director-actor tag team, with Shannon essaying desperately anguished dads in both Take Shelter and Midnight Special and contributing a cameo as a Life magazine photographer in last year’s Loving. Rather than simply exploiting his star’s more pyrotechnical possibilities, Nichols twists his scripts skilfully around Shannon’s soulful stoicism. When the rural, Chicken Little protagonist of Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011) loses it at a church meeting, the impression is of a self-effacing man awkwardly making himself the center of attention for the first time. The movie’s portrait of traditional masculinity in crisis would be unthinkable without Shannon’s ability to go from a whisper to a scream. His most memorable moment, though, comes when he’s talking under his breath, wondering in a whisper if anyone else sees the impending horror flashing just over the horizon.

Bug and Take Shelter are two of Shannon’s career peaks. Nocturnal Animals is the third. For the most part, Tom Ford’s sophomore feature is luridly silly stuff, starting with a red-white-and–Blue Velvet overture featuring some distinctly Lynchian dancing girls. As a director, Ford makes a pretty good production designer, and he doesn’t have a firm grip on dramaturgy. Exhibit A is the somehow Golden Globe–worthy acting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus, a thug who menaces a family doing its best just to pass through his West Texas stomping grounds. Snarling beneath a baseball cap at hapless city mouse Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), Taylor-Johnson is aiming for something à la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, but he looks and sounds very much like an adorable British actor carefully scuzzed-up and trying his best to approximate feral, don’t-tread-on-me menace.

By contrast, Shannon’s work feels deceptively effortless; he’s the cop assigned to Tony’s case after the latter wanders back into town claiming that his wife and daughter have been abducted. At first, Shannon’s Detective Bobby Andes is a simply laconic presence, keeping a noticeable distance from Tony and maintaining a gruff, just-business facade that’s also recognizable as a professional coping mechanism. As the situation worsens, Bobby lets himself get fully caught up in the out-of-towner’s woes and accrues an unexpected dimension via Shannon’s decision to take a reliable Western archetype — the seen-it-all sheriff who always gets his man — and rotate it on an unexpected axis.

Like his fellow Best Supporting Actor nominee Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water, Shannon is playing a dogged lawman driven by a personal sense of justice. The easy choice would be to lean into the character’s self-righteousness, but Shannon wisely recedes into a more shadowed realm. When Bobby begins advising the grief-stricken Tony to ignore protocol and take matters into his own hands, he becomes an avenging angel on a desperate man’s shoulders. It’s hard to tell if Bobby is a stand-up type stumping for warranted frontier justice or an opportunist deftly coercing a morally conflicted collaborator into serving as his own personal blunt instrument.

Confusion and doubt have always been in Shannon’s wheelhouse. Nocturnal Animals is the first time that he has fully styled himself into an enigma, and the sense of mystery in his acting offsets the obviousness of everything else onscreen. Instead of taking things over the top, Shannon invites us to wonder what he’s hiding under Bobby Andes’s ten-gallon hat. It’d be a fine irony indeed if the most entertainingly keyed-up actor of his generation wins an Academy Award for keeping things low-key — an act he hopefully drops once he’s made his way to the lectern.