Michael Shannon’s eyes have been put to great use in the last decade. You might know him from Revolutionary Road, where he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of John Givings, the math professor who has had a psychotic break. Sometimes actors are just born to play a certain type. Tim Blake Nelson has made an excellent career of playing rural idiots, Michael Douglas has made his fortune playing high-class snobs. The list goes on.
Of course, there are certain pitfalls to this kind of typecasting. For every George Clooney, where variations on a theme can lead to exciting and surprising results, there is always a Michael Ironside, where the performer is forced to play one note parts until they retire.
For a while there it was looking like Michael Shannon was going to be stuck in the latter category, forever playing the crazy uncle or the unhinged friend. However, in the last few years, Shannon has done a remarkable job of taking challenging roles that compliment his interesting face and physicality. Take his performance in the underrated masterpiece BUG, where his intense eyes almost make us believe in the insects we can’t see. Or his performance in 2009’s brilliant My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, where Shannon’s performance teeters somewhere between Marlon Brando and Bela Lugosi (no small feat), while simultaneously allowing us to project our own fears and desires onto him.
It seems that directors have taken note of Shannon’s ability to convey emotion without speaking. Perhaps more than any other actor working today, Michael Shannon is the one most suited for silent pictures. His performances are always both understated and bombastic, playing with the balance of the two the way a good musician juggles improvisation and precision.
And in Jeff Nichols’ atmospheric, devastating Take Shelter, Michael Shannon has given us the performance of his career.
Not since There Will Be Blood have I seen a performance that truly frightened me in this way. Shannon is so believable, so truly unhinged, that I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Every movement of his eyes and every twitch of his face has true power. He has mastered the physicality of his performance in such a unique and brilliant way that I could not take my eyes off the screen. He is electric here. Terrifying. I believe every second of his performance, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the General Zod in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel.
As for the film itself, I’ll give you a little background. If you haven’t seen the chilling trailer yet, here’s a quick summary of the plot. Curtis has been having nightmares for the last few weeks. Each one contains a storm. Whenever the storm comes, something happens to his daughter. The dreams become more vivid and violent as the film goes on, and his visions of the apocalypse begin to invade his waking life. Before long, it becomes unclear as to whether Curtis is truly having visions or just succumbing to mental illness.
Jeff Nichols’ script and direction are incredibly ambitious for the obviously low budget on this film, and his script does a very good job of slowly building the suspense and the macabre atmosphere of the whole thing. The cinematography is still, deliberate, and the shot composition always leaves the main focus of the frame just a little bit obscured. As the film is told through the perspective of Curtis, Nichols uses the cinematography to limit the audience. We aren’t allowed to know what Curtis does not, and Nichols wisely leaves it up to us to decide if Curtis is a prophet or just insane.
The other standout performance in this film is by The Tree of Life and The Help‘s Jessica Chastain, who seems to have come out of nowhere this year and surprised everyone with three excellent performances in a row. As Curtis’ wife, Samantha, Chastain must perform the hardest job in the film–that is, play opposite such a juicy, provocative role and still maintain the audience’s attention. And not only does she hold her own next to Shannon’s powerhouse performance, but she sometimes exceeds even his abilities and reaches amazing heights. Nichols better be glad he got Chastain when he did, because she is bound for great things in the coming years–and even greater paychecks.
Of course, Take Shelter isn’t perfect. It is a little overwritten, running perhaps fifteen minutes too long, and sometimes the plot beats are a little predictable, but when this film is in its stride, there is really nothing like it. It is haunting, emotional, honest, and, most of all, ambitious.
See it for Shannon’s performance. It is one of the great performances of our time.