Michael Shannon was made for this low-budget thriller. He’s a hallucinating Army deserter, and although the claustrophobic setting and psychological anguish echoed William Friedkin’s masterpiece The Exorcist, Shannon made it his own. It’s a wonderful performance, even though he’s less terrifying and more lived-in.

The Killing Fields

A little overlooked when it was released in 2012, this thriller was the apex of Shannon’s bug-eyed, psychotic, intense performances. He plays a cop who hunts down Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bike messenger with all the relentless determination of a T-1000.

Directed by William Friedkin and written by Tracy Letts, the gomovies is far more of a paranoia movie than the creature flick that misleads audiences in its trailers. Shannon’s performance is a master class in the art of acting with your eyes closed.

The script is unflinching in its depiction of Schanberg’s harrowing experiences. Roland Joffe’s camera never turns away from the horror — the incomprehensible Cambodian scenes of amputated limbs and burned babies are utterly devastating. In addition to Take Shelter, Mud and Shotgun Stories, this was the third collaboration between director Jeff Nichols and Shannon. He and co-stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan and Scoot McNairy earned Academy Award nominations for their work in the film.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Shannon’s most recent film is this underrated heist movie, in which he plays the notorious real-life gangster. He has a great chemistry with co-star Chris Evans and his performance is both terrifying and genuinely funny.

During his time working with director Jeff Nichols, Shannon began to get more mainstream projects. This was the first of three movies he made with Nichols and it showcased his ability to play characters that aren’t creepy or intense in a way that doesn’t make you groan.

Despite the fact that the movie isn’t as good as the book on which it’s based, it still has some great scenes and is worth checking out for Shannon’s performance. He reworks the role of Jesse James from Hollywood’s romantic anti-hero to a paranoid, axe-crazy lunatic who’s not to be trusted. It’s a fantastic deconstruction of the James myth.

The Last Man on Earth

Shannon’s character in this thriller isn’t as dangerous or as disturbing as some of his others, but he still manages to elevate this mediocre film with his impressive acting. He serves up a dose of sanity in this story about a man who goes out looking for love after being jilted by his wife.

Director Sidney Lumet assembles an all-star cast for this story about a jewel store heist gone wrong. Ethan Hawke and the sadly departed Philip Seymour are among the stars, but it’s Shannon who steals this movie with his performance as the brother of the two main thieves.

A NYC bike messenger (Gordon-Levitt) gets a package from a mysterious source that puts him on a collision course with the corrupt NYPD detective played by Shannon in this fast-paced thriller. Shannon delivers a superb performance as the man unsure whether he’s losing his mind. This is a career-defining role for the actor.

The Assassination of Richard Kuklinski

In this underseen film from last year, Shannon delivers a masterful performance as contract killer Richard Kuklinski. He was a giant man who got very creative with killing, including cyanide poisoning and feeding people alive to his warehouse full of rats. In a good mood, Kuklinski could be loving and supportive to his wife but when he was in a bad one things turned nasty quickly.

The film can be a little bogged down by melodrama but the central couple’s dinner scene featuring Shannon’s desperation and franticness is one of the best dining scenes in recent years. It is also the earliest glimpse of the imposing presence that would define so many of his roles.

The movie may not be perfect but Shannon’s performance is undoubtedly the apex of his career to date. He is a forceful, Type A character that pulls Andrew Garfield into his rotten ethos and then goes about destroying him with ruthless determination.