Shotgun Stories (2008) dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday
Have you ever felt such deep-rooted hatred for someone, or a group of people? Have you ever been in a fight, or have violence threatened on you? "Shotgun Stories" captures this visceral fear, adrenline and emotion of these real life situations.
What is "Shotgun Stories" you may ask? By word of mouth and a few key festivals screenings over the past couple of years, the movie has emerged as one of the great American true independent films of the new millennium. Jeff Nichol's feature debut concerns a family feud between two sets of half brothers after the death of their father. Nichols' treatment and examination of violence echoes some of the great 70's films on the topic including Terrence Malick's "Badlands", and Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs".
Nichols' is simple in his concept. He sets up an archetypal, Shakesperean or even Biblical conflict. There's three Hayes brothers - none of whom are given names. There's the older one (Michael Shannon), the middle one (Doug Lignon) and the youngest one (Barlow Jacobs). They live together estranged from the mother and father together in a ramshackle home in rural Arkansas. Their father has just died and they decide to attend the funeral. In the backstory, Hayes' father started a new family whom we learn created animosity between the sets of half brothers. Michael Shannon's character makes a candid speech about his father's failures which angers the other clan. This sparks a family war which escalates from minor disturbances to extreme violence and death.
The film's purpose and plot is played loose in the opening act. Some might call it boring. But Nichols is careful to establish this tone and the environment - a slow-moving existence without much hope or dreams.
Nichols starts the film off by putting in the audience in the point of view of the Shannon character and his brothers. Gradually we learn about the other family, their estrangement with their mother, and the disillusionment they have suffered as a result. The other Hayes clan are dressed differently and carry themselves as more confident and well-off. Nichols allows us to imply that envy fuels their anger. The director expertly frustrates us by showing us both points of view - and so we can anticipate where the quid-pro-quo could lead, but we are powerless to stop it.By the mid-point and beyond the film has its audience it's a tight vise and keeps squeezing.
With the realism that Nichols' establishes the tragedy has a biblical quality. Killing a character on film is common, it's difficult to pull a real reaction from the audience. But somehow the death in this film hits closer to home. Nichols doesn't put specific blame on any of the characters either. The violence is an organic force which breeds from the hate and anger of the enemies. We desperately want the two families to let bygones be bygones and so when they can't settle their differences the shock is amplified.
The performance of all the males help sell the story. With the exception of Michael Shannon all are unfamiliar and average faces - and the type of people any of us could knew.
Nichols tries his damnest not to sensationalize the story. He clearly makes a point not to show us the actual violence on screen . He often cuts away at the critical moments of a confrontation. It's Nichols' way of unglamorizing the violence - by not actually showing it to us. I'm not sure if it makes the film stronger, but it's consistent with his message.
Arguably the ending lets the audience off the hook. Nichol's ties a thematic knot to end the film, but he does so in a manner perhaps too subtle for a climax. A Peckinpah gun battle would not be appropriate, but a moment to really challenge the characters and force them to make a tougher decision that the one makes at the end.
Despite the knitpicking "Shotgun Stories" announces Jeff Nichols as fresh new voice in American independent cinema. Let's hope he follows the path of his producer David Gordon Green and continues to make unique personal films without the Hollywood gloss. Enjoy.