Take One: Shotgun Stories (2007)
Shannon looks to be getting the best raves of his career for the ominous apocalyptic mystery Take Shelter, which stunned critics at Sundance and Cannes. It’s the second feature from Jeff Nichols whose debut, Shotgun Stories, also starred Shannon. In that film he plays Son Hayes, the eldest of three brothers along with Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Tim Blackwood) who alternately avoid and pursues conflict with their recently-deceased father’s other family. (Maybe the conflict was originally over the father’s terrible child-naming skills, who knows?) Son is a quiet, intense guy. It seems like fortuitous casting: Shannon, in shape and presence, and with his innate ability to show us exactly what his characters are thinking whilst doing very little, is ideally suited to the role. He brings perceptive silent intelligence to this role of an unlucky man who keeps his cards, and all else, close to his chest. (Son has numerous shotgun-bullet scars on his back and only late in the film do we discover their origins.)
Although outwardly Shannon doesn’t appear to transmit much emotionally, there are many minor moments when he imparts a great deal with shuffling body movements and facial expressions. He turns a scene in which he hears devastating news in a hospital into a painful, sincere display of grief. His face turns red, crumples and then empties out in vacant disbelief. Even when Shannon is filmed working at the fishery or wandering his quiet house he never lets one minor aspect of his character slip.
Take Two: Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s most high-profile role to date is undoubtedly John Givings in Sam Mendes’ Richard Yates adaptation Revolutionary Road. He even received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work, losing to Heath Ledger's Joker. Shannon’s part in this frosty portrait of 1950s marital malaise was like the irreparable fracture in a perfect picture frame; he was an embodiment of the Wheelers’ (Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio) life fears and also their itchy marital trigger finger, representing the id that upset straight-laced Suburbia’s applecart. Shannon plays the role with maximum shifty dislocation. With unsettling conviction, he makes Givings’ experience of 37 electric-shock treatments feel like a history of shattering truths with only a mouthful of dry, slyly-delivered dialogue.
Givings was on the money when pinpointing the couple’s barely-uttered concerns. His response to Frank’s ruminations on life:
The hopeless emptiness? Now, you've said it. Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
It’s literally a scene-stealing moment: the camera halts in its tracks. Givings words hangs in the air like poison and nobody follows them up as Givings walks off... as does Shannon with the scene. Only an assured committed character actor can pull the rug out from under two of Hollywood’s premiere Oscar players to snag the film’s sole acting nomination.
Take Three: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2010)
As Brad McCullum, a character based on a real-life San Diego man who murdered his mother, Shannon spends a lot of time in My Son My Son What Have Ye Done holed up in a house. It’s what he does to “cope”. If you’d just permanently cut your mother down to size with a sword, you also might end up talking to flamingos, seeing God in a pack of oatmeal biscuits and shouting down hordes of police officers from a garage.
Shannon’s performance is unarguably strange but it’s so wrong it’s (entirely) right. He uses a bug-eyed gargoyle grimace to brilliant effect, regardless of whether dialogue is or isn’t required to accompany it. The film's premise hangs on the wobbly, ineffective state of Brad’s mind throughout and Shannon’s standoffish unpredictability is utilised to full effect.
Whether he’s wearing a poncho in Peru, thrusting a coffee cup at crime-scene gawkers (threateningly whispering, “Razzle ‘em, dazzle ‘em”) or doing one of his regulation eerie blank glares, Shannon is filled with baffling surprises. This is a crucial role in his career in which you can see him flex his unique persona. (Shannon may become a Herzog fixture: he also padded out the cast of Bad Lieutenant this same year.) Plus, Shannon was also responsible for one of the best lines of dialogue from a movie in 2010. Referring to his pink flamingo “hostages” he says:
I always knew you were my eagles in drag.”
It’s evident from the way Shannon conducts himself onscreen that he's on the road to well-sustained career longevity. I don’t think Shannon will ever win an Oscar, but he’ll likely win the eternal respect of film fanatics the world over for bold, uncommercial roles like this one.
Three more key films for the taking: Dead Birds (2004), Bug (2006), The Runaways (2010)