Have you ever felt such deep-rooted hatred for someone or a group of people? Have you ever been in a fight or had violence threatened on you? 'Shotgun Stories' captures the visceral fear, adrenaline and emotion of these real-life situations.
Shotgun Stories (2007) dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday
By Alan Bacchus
By Roger Ebert's laudatory review and selection to Ebertfest in 2008 and then almost exclusively by word of mouth, this movie very slowly became recognized as one of the great American true independent films of the new millennium. Jeff Nichols' 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 '70s films on the topic, including Terrence Malick's Badlands and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.
Nichols' concept is simple, featuring an archetypal, Shakespearean or even Biblical conflict and the three Hayes brothers - none of whom are given names - the older one (Michael Shannon), the middle one (Doug Lignon) and the younger one (Barlow Jacobs). They live together estranged from their mother and father in a ramshackle home in rural Arkansas. Their father has just died and they decide to attend the funeral. In the backstory, the Hayes's 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 that 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 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 is dressed differently and carry themselves more confidently and with an air of being well-off. Nichols allows us to imply that envy fuels their anger. The director expertly frustrates us by showing both points of view 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 in 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, but it's difficult to pull a real reaction from the audience. Somehow the death in this film hits closer to home. Nichols doesn't put specific blame on any of the characters. 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 performances from all of 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 know.
Nichols tries his damnedest 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 his 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. Nichols 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 there could have been a moment to really challenge the characters and force them to make a tougher decision than the one made at the end.
Despite this nitpicking Shotgun Stories announced Jeff Nichols as a fresh new voice in American independent cinema. And if you haven't seen Take Shelter, now's the time to discover this talented filmmaker.