Nov 232011

Lexington native comes home for the holidays—in cinematic form

By Lucy Jones

There’s a lot to like about Michael Shannon.

He’s a native Lexingtonian, so that should earn him the instant affection and allegiance of anyone with a UK sweatshirt in her closet or a Local First sticker on his car.

Of course, if you’re an impossibly hard sell who somehow demands greater credentials for devotion than that, consider that at age of 37, Shannon is an Academy Award nominated actor who has worked with cinematic legends ranging from John Waters to Werner Herzog to Martin Scorsese.

I was more than happy to accept that statement as the most impressive thing about him, until I heard this: when Sony Pictures Classics began the platform release of his new film, Take Shelter, Shannon not only made his wishes clear that he’d like the film played in Lexington, he also specified that he wanted it shown at the Kentucky Theatre. A loyal friend of the Kentucky Theatre? In my book, there’s nothing more adoration inspiring than that.

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter.

The fact that Take Shelter’s Lexington release was expedited based on Shannon’s wishes is testament to his growing popularity as an actor. Henry Clay alumni were, perhaps, among the first in Lexington to get wind of Shannon’s Hollywood ascent. In late 2008, among rumors that Shannon might be on the receiving end of an Oscar nomination for his performance in Revolutionary Road, celebrity memorabilia dealers began randomly contacting Blue Devils via social networking sites. Their goal: buying up all the yearbooks from Shannon’s high school career on the hunch that he was about to break big.

While their success in this endeavor is unknown (not one of my sources has admitted to being sufficiently impoverished to trade high school memories for cash), the dealers’ predictions were right. Although Shannon worked consistently throughout the 2000s, his post-nomination roles have been considerably meatier. Now, playing Agent Nelson Van Alden in the Scorsese-produced HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, Shannon is doing some of the most high profile work of his career.

Take Shelter kills

If the possibility of a Supporting Actor nomination had memorabilia dealers salivating, there’s no telling the onslaught of cash offers that Henry Clay alumni can expect in the wake of Take Shelter. In a performance that has been branded a “powerhouse” by more than one critic, the film is garnering Shannon some of the best reviews of his career.

Take Shelter, a perfectly crafted and brilliantly paced portrait of a man in crisis, is astonishingly only the sophomore effort from writer/director Jeff Nichols. His first film, Shotgun Stories, also starred Shannon; and his third feature, Mud, will showcase the actor alongside another sometime Lexington resident, Sam Shepard.

Take Shelter tells the story of Curtis, a working class everyman with a loving wife, a cute kid, and (according to his admiring friend and co-worker) “a good life.” All is as it should be until Curtis starts having vivid nightmares detailing an impending apocalypse.  Worried that he might be suffering from early signs of mental illness, Curtis is equally concerned that his dreams might, in fact, be real. Quietly seeking help from a broken health care system (he worries that, if his friends and family suspect a mental breakdown, he could be institutionalized and no longer able to protect his child) Curtis simultaneously begins the obsessive construction of a disaster shelter in his backyard.

Ironically, Curtis’ preoccupation with keeping his family safe ultimately, in the eyes of those around him, becomes the issue that most endangers them. His relationships, job, and the medical care of his daughter are all threatened by his descent into what others deem madness.

Shannon’s performance is so tortured and powerfully empathy invoking that the viewer finds herself in the strange position of rooting for the Apocalypse. Shannon’s Curtis is so earnest, so well-meaning, so devoted to his concept of fatherhood that we want nothing more than for him to be right and validated.

To the great benefit of the film, Shannon is matched on every level by his co-star, Jessica Chastain. Her characterization of Curtis’ wife, Samantha, is every bit as complex and interesting as Shannon’s is of Curtis. Chastain’s Samantha stands up for herself, but she also stands up for her husband. The moments in which she is forced to weigh her love for Curtis against the perceived emotional betrayal of his secret are some of the most powerful of the movie.

Take Shelter, take one

As a stand-alone film, Take Shelter is a stunning piece of work and worthy of any 2011 top ten list. But what makes it of particular interest to the career of Michael Shannon is that, essentially, this is the second time he has made this film. For anyone who saw the 2009 Werner Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (executive produced by David Lynch for an extra dose of weirdness), certain themes and plot elements from Take Shelter will feel familiar.

In that film, Shannon plays Brad McCullum, a young man of promise who foresees a kayaking disaster and, after avoiding the fate of his doomed friends, becomes a changed person. After witnessing what he thought was the future, he becomes obsessed with the idea that his mother must die in order to save the world.

While Brad’s actions seem crazy to all of the characters who populate the film, certain cues throughout the movie suggest that there may be some veracity to his visions. Like Curtis in Take Shelter, the viewer is forced to question whether Brad is a lunatic or a prophet.

Similar themes of paranoia emerge in the 2006 Michael Shannon film, Bug. Directed by William Friedkin and starring Ashley Judd (also a former Lexington resident…notice another trend?), the film explores the merging lines of reality and delusion as two desperate people hole up in a motel room that they believe is infested by microscopic insects produced by the government.

Based on a play by Tracy Letts, the film is, depending upon who you ask, an exploration of the shared delusions that paranoia can create, a condemnation of losing oneself to romantic love, or a cautionary tale about crystal meth. Whatever your reading of the film, it is Shannon’s performance—intensely disturbed yet heart-wrenchingly vulnerable—that stays in one’s mind.

Whether Shannon has purposefully sought these roles, or whether his unique looks and intense presence have simply inspired the casting, the actor has, at a relatively young age, already amassed a substantial body of work that explores a number of interwoven themes. If the last five years are any indication, Shannon is well on his way to having one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood.

Henry Clay alumni, hang onto those yearbooks.

Take Shelter is now playing at the Kentucky Theatre. For information on show times, please visit

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