It’s hard to get comfortable watching Michael Shannon. The actor exudes unease and tension, as if he’s coiling a spring ever tighter into his gut, grimacing from the effort it requires.
Few in Hollywood are as skilled at conveying psychic pain or the impracticality of repression. You know, eventually, the guy’s going to explode. It’s just a matter of when, where, and who’ll get caught in the blast.
In “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy about a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with an imprisoned creature from the deep (Doug Jones), Shannon delivers another powder-keg performance. As brutish government agent Strickland, a gung-ho zealot whose repressive ideology leads him to brand the amphibious creature an “affront to God,” he’s the film’s most nakedly monstrous figure, a sneering, self-righteous fascist in patriot drag, armed with an electrified cattle-prod and hell-bent on destroying all those who threaten his hyper-masculine senses of achievement and entitlement. While some actors stretch to the edge of their range playing characters like Strickland, men teetering toward self-destruction, Shannon seems built for such roles.
Perhaps it’s his wild eyes, deep-set within his skull and all the more expressive for their haunted quality. Those piercing orbs can segue, sometimes within seconds, from the desperate anguish of a drowning man to the blazing, abject fury of one possessed. The facial structure surrounding them is just as striking: a brow furrowed by deep lines, an impossibly sturdy jawline, and pockmarked skin that appears just a little too slack, as if the heat rolling off him has caused it to expand slightly over time.
Shannon’s voice, too, is low-pitched and slow, alternately imbued with Chicago flavor and a Kentucky bourbon drawl, but still capable of raising to a primordial bellow when the storms that rage within his characters rip free. His very frame, broad-shouldered with gangly limbs, appears not just taut but rigged to explode.
Few could have predicted Shannon would emerge as one of the great meltdown maestros when he first appeared, at just 18, in “Groundhog Day” playing an aw-shucks Punxsutawney local encountered by Bill Murray’s character during one of his many relived Feb. 2nds. It’s a bit role, if an endearing one, and Shannon promptly faded back into the Chicago theater scene after the movie’s release. The next decade saw slow progress toward nominal fame: He was “that guy,” appearing in the background of movies like “High Crimes” and “Bad Boys II” as unseemly thugs and felons.
A big moment came with the hip-hop drama “8 Mile,” in which Shannon played the vile white-trash stepfather to Eminem’s character; an even bigger one arrived a few years later, in “Bug,” William Friedkin’s skin-crawling adaptation of the Tracy Letts play. As a deluded veteran who holes up in a motel room with a waitress (Ashley Judd), paranoid that the military has infested his cells with insects, Shannon dominates the picture. He’d played the same role before, originating it on stage in Chicago, and his theater training bodily carries the thriller toward its horrific denouement; on-screen, he’s a magnetic mess of tics and twitches, rapidly descending into madness.
Hollywood took notice. Shannon’s first proper breakout role, soon after, was in “Revolutionary Road,” where his portrayal of a mentally ill mathematician capable of speaking caustic truths to Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s unfulfilled suburban couple earned him his first Oscar nomination. Since then, the actor’s star has continued to rise, along with his credibility in the industry. He’s built up an impressive resume of committed performances in wildly diverse blockbuster and indie fare, and on the small screen his unhinged Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden became an iconic figure across four seasons of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Shannon’s characters since, though wide-ranging, have often felt connected in how their propensity for violent eruption masks a profoundly pained interior life. His General Zod in “Man of Steel” is an almost empathetic figure, warped by the destruction of his home planet, desperate to preserve it. In the based-on-a-true-story thriller “The Iceman,” the actor’s take on Richard Kuklinski offers the murderous hit man perhaps more tragic depth than the real man deserved. Elsewhere, his enigmatic Texas lawman in “Nocturnal Animals” — the performance for which Shannon earned his second Oscar nomination last year — proffers a steely moral code informed by his tragic backstory. And in the neo-noir “Frank & Lola,” as a destructively jealous lover, he’s locked in a struggle with his worst masculine instincts.
Director Jeff Nichols has cast Shannon in every feature he’s made to date, including as an abused loner in “Shotgun Stories,” as a family man tormented by visions of the apocalypse in “Take Shelter,” and as a father grappling with his son’s inexplicable powers in “Midnight Special.” The actor has responded with some of his most towering work. In “Take Shelter” he’s particularly heartbreaking, a dutiful everyman consumed with the terror of having all he’s worked for ripped away by some unseen force
In “The Shape of Water,” opening here on Friday, Shannon once again affirms his status as a cinematic ticking time-bomb in the vein of Malcolm McDowell, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Christopher Walken. Like those legends, Shannon has emerged as a performer of extraordinary restraint and physicality: one who embodies machismo while letting its destructive qualities burn, like acid, just under the skin.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.