Monday, August 7, 2017

Birthday Take: Michael Shannon in "Nocturnal Animals" (2016)

Scene from Nocturnal Animals
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Michael Shannon
Born: August 7, 1974 (43 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor (nominated) for Nocturnal Animals as Bobby Andes

The Take

As far as great character actors go, Michael Shannon is one of the best currently working. He adds his odd eccentricity so subtly to every role that it enhances the movie experience. One cannot forget him, no matter what role he plays. However, there's an even odder conundrum when it comes to recognizing actors for awards. What if they have an enviable body of work, and they only ever really get nominated for the mediocre work? That is pretty much the case with director Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, which is a film that very well may be one of the most baffling Oscar season movies of 2016. It doesn't even take long to think of how weird it actually is. In fact, the opening scene has its own controversial story regarding a dancing nude model, of whom Ford had initially wanted to film as a scathing indictment of American culture, but ended up loving their natural beauty. It's a story that may be contradictory and offensive, but then again, Nocturnal Animals is something of a unique mess unto itself.

Ford is a filmmaker who actually is better known for making clothes that beautiful people wear. It's fun to read quotes from him prohibiting his son from wearing cheap clothes during the press circuits for this movie. It explains a bit about this movie, which in some ways is as vapid as the self-conscious imagery of its characters. There's a reason that Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal look the way that they do. However, this film is supposed to be about a mystery regarding a mystery novel that Gyllenhaal wrote. In some ways, it's equally confusing as to how co-star Aaron Johnson got a Golden Globe for playing a man naked on a toilet on a front porch. However, there's something to the oddity that is Shannon's dying cop character here. Even his accent seems to be a bit aloof of its line deliveries.

In theory, the film isn't terrible. It's just something that is rooted so heavily in a vapid culture that it never feels like it's serious or parody at any moment. Ford could be playing this intentionally, and it definitely helps the surrealism of it all, but the film doesn't ever make enough sense to warrant anything. Shannon in particular feels like a comic folly for the story, as he exists as a character with a bad cough and a tragic story. It's fine within context, and maybe elevates the kookiness of the surrounding mystery. He spouts wisdom as much as he hacks a lung, and it all adds up to one very strange journey into the mind of Ford's adaptation of a book that most people likely have never read before. Did Shannon give a good performance? Sure. However, it's hard to suggest this over what else's he's done since his last nomination for Reservation Road.

For instance, there is something to his work with Jeff Nichols that is particularly inspired. Nichols is a director who manages to tell Midwest stories crossed with a supernatural element. It's all a bit nuanced in ways that raise the question in regards to Shannon's psyche. One could also look at the equally acclaimed Take Shelter and Midnight Special and see him giving some of his career best performances. I am personally a fan of his work in The Runaways, if just because of how dedicated he is to making Kim Fowley into a reprehensible jerk. It's a performance that gets under your skin and makes you think that Shannon is going to be one of the great actors of his generation, Man of Steel notwithstanding. 

I mostly say the last part because I doubt that anyone came out of Nocturnal Animals and felt that this was a shining example of Shannon's work. True, it's a slightly better track record than Stanley Tucci's sole nomination being for The Lovely Bones, but it's another annoying example of how great actors get nominated for the wrong movies. Even then, I'm sure that Shannon will do great work and may get a third Oscar nomination. That would be ideal. Still, it's tough to imagine him getting anything for a movie that has so many salacious details as Nocturnal Animals, which doesn't quite scream Oscar movie to begin with. It wasn't even the movie that people got mad about Adams getting snubbed for. That was for the more superior Arrival. If nothing else, his nomination has the double-sided curse of making this movie be remembered as something more than a schlocky drama with a weird hacking cop character and a few naked dancers. 

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