, 92 min, 2007
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs
Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories is a Southern Gothic melodrama revolving around a blood feud which has its roots in the past and spirals down through time, infecting the lives and minds of an entire family, soiling the present and almost claiming the future.
The film concerns two sets of half-brothers in a rustic small town in Arkansas. The first set, we learn, was raised by an alcoholic father and a mother who they refer to simply as “a hateful woman.” This fraternal set is led by Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), seemingly the eldest, whose wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) has just left him (with their young son) and whose “system” for gambling at a local casino is a perpetual failure.
He works at a fish farm for a living, and when his wife leaves him, he invites his younger brothers Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) to sleep at his house. Kid sleeps in a tent in Son’s backyard, and aspires to marry his own girlfriend. Boy, the gentlest and biggest pacifist of them all, teaches basketball to local youths and lives in a van, and there’s a running gag that his fan shorted out his radio, so now the same heavy metal tape plays over and over, sporadically jolting to life in fits and starts, utterly unpredictable and occasionally inappropriate.
One day, the trio’s mother comes to inform them their father is dead. “When’s the funeral,” asks Son. “You can find out in the newspaper,” she coldly replies. “You going,” asks Son. “No,” says the “hateful woman.” At the funeral, Son and his kin are clearly not welcome but his father’s second wife (Natalie Canerday of Sling Blade and October Sky) allows him to say one or two things. His recollections of his father are not kind, and he caps it off by literally spitting on the man’s grave. This leads to a fight with the man’s four grown children from his second marriage, and soon the fight will escalate before spiraling out of control.
First one side of the family does something, then the other retaliates, and on and on. So entrenched in this rivalry will these men become that it never once is said out-right that they all have the same father (how they’re related) and thus they never consider themselves one big family, but rather like two small warring tribes from the same culture. Where will it end? Not where you think, amazingly enough.
Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed, has made an astonishingly assured and gripping feature debut. Born in Little Rock, he is working in the same milieu as writer-director David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls,Undertow); it’s no coincidence that Green helped produce this film. Green also lent his second unit cinematographer Adam Stone to be the head cinematographer on this film and it shows; Nichols is drawn to the same ostensibly simplistic widescreen compositions that Green is, including the beautiful shots of the rustic Southern landscape, the subtle camera movements on stationary figures and objects, and the lush greens of the grass and blues of the sky.
Although the film is technically a revenge tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, it is not without a scintilla of humor: there’s the battles between Boy and his van, the first run-in with a goofy ex-classmate named Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins), and consider too this brilliant interchange between the brothers one lazy afternoon:
“This is one broken-ass town.”
“It’s like we own it.”
“If I owned this town, I’d sell it.”
“We don’t own the square-root of shit.”
Nichols knows this world inside and out, and in that scene (among others) manages to paint a picture perfect portrait of what it is like to be these people, in this time and place. He listens to how his characters talk, sees clearly how they relate to one another and the world around them; his film is almost a dramatic documentary.
The performance by Michael Shannon (Bug, World Trade Center) is intensely and fiercely controlled; he’s one of our finest “unknown” actors. It is surprising, then, that he turns out to be less than a hero; his mother raised he and his brothers to hate her dead husband’s second family and they have resented Son and his kin for their hatred of their shared father.
One of Son’s brothers wants the fighting to stop, and is willing to rationalize, talking his way out of the breach; he will single-handedly save his entire family’s future. It is that final turn of the plot that makes this film more than just the fascinating and absorbing slice of life-turned-thriller it already was; it is that final turn which makes this film deep, wise and profoundly moving. This is one of the year’s very best films.
Note: This film has had distribution trouble, and after film festivals and extremely limited theatrical runs, always favorable to those who saw it, it finally came to DVD in 2008. Seek it out.