Nocturnal Animals tells two stories, one of the vapid woman who reads the manuscript and ponders on the vapid choices that lead to her vapidness. A wholly inert story filled with terrible overacting from the majority of the cast, awkward dialogue, a jump scare, and people in their late thirties as college students, which attempts to get by through asking the audience to think of what does it all mean??? We also are given the story of the manuscript about a man Tony (Gyllenhaal as well) whose family is abducted by three men after their car is run off an isolated rode. This half of the film is the stronger half, but that isn't saying much. Alone it is an excessively straight forward and derivative thriller. Anyways in the story Tony finds help in the local law enforcement and this is where Michael Shannon comes into the picture as the lawman tasked to try to help the man find his family. Now in the film there is an attempt by most of the supporting players to give a stylized performance a la a David Lynch film, and I don't like even mentioning Lynch's name in connection to this film since it fails so miserably to replicate that type of style.
Michael Shannon is a very good actor, though now if you only knew him by his Oscar nominations you'd think he only ever played quirky supporting roles in not very good films. He's capable of much more, but he does know how to make at least something out of weak material. Again there is that stylized quality to all the supporting performances and it is found in Shannon's work as well, he's just better at it. Shannon plays the Texan police officer who likes to get justice done his way. Shannon delivery automatically is a little atypical and plays it up here just a bit in his casual drawl as he investigates the disappearances that quickly are revealed to be murders. Shannon's a man with presence, a naturally intriguing one, to the point that you expect more from one of his characters even if there is very little to them. That does come in handy here just as Andes goes about asking Tony various questions about the crime. There is something naturally engaging about Shannon asking the questions with those steely eyes of his along with that slight lisp.
On that point I will admit upon my initial viewing of the film I found Michael Shannon to be the strongest element of the film, and perhaps that hasn't changed, yet it does not mean a great deal. This is not a great performance by Michael Shannon, though he is no way helped by the rote character he is given. He's the gritty officer who has the occasional one liner to deliver some exposition, then later gets to go all Death Wish on the criminals to help the man avenge his family. There is little depth past that even his eventually revealed fatal cancer is more of there for a plot device to enable him to go full Death Wish. Shannon's task therefore is just to kind of be there to make some very banal notes sing. He does so by playing into the style, which does not make a realistic performance, but in a film where the tone doesn't work anyways, you have to take what you can get. Shannon is indeed somewhat entertaining in playing into the type, I have to say on re-watch his entertainment value decreased though, and I fear if I ever saw the film again its terribleness may infect his work all the more. I will also grant a bit of credit in that there is some nuance in his work. In the moment where he finds Tony's family, he grants a bit of emotion in his melancholy glance, after Tony inquires about his daughter's fate, and later offers some anguish behind the intensity as he says that he's changed indicating towards his fatal condition. It doesn't add up to all that much but I appreciate that it is there. He's mostly there to grumble out a few choice lines, which he does well enough, and give some deadly intense stares, which I'm pretty sure is Shannon's resting expression. It's not a great performance, but for me he at least offered something in an otherwise unpleasant experience.