Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Shotgun Stories

SHOTGUN STORIES (Jeff Nichols, 2007)

Long-held resentments and a feud between two sets of half-brothers is triggered when their father dies in SHOTGUN STORIES. To Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs), and Boy (Douglas Ligon) their father has been dead to them since he abandoned the family and subsequently straightened up and started a new, respectable life. Their dad also produced three boys with his second family, and his preference for them is evident by the fact that they all have proper names.

Son stirs up the bad blood between clans when he crashes the funeral to speak ill of the recently departed. His words provoke a brief confrontation between the antagonistic half-brothers but don’t lead to anything of consequence by the grave. Still, the offense gets Mark Hayes (Travis Smith) and his siblings itching for a fight. Even if they do their best to stay clear of one another in the small, central Arkansas town, a clash seems inevitable.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols excels at capturing the shorthand that families, especially brothers, often communicate in. Terse conversations among Son, Kid, and Boy reflect a common understanding that allows them to discuss emotional matters without having to spill their guts to one another. Each inherently knows what the others are thinking whether things go unsaid or are spoken around. Nichols makes good use of the actors in letting their subtle facial reactions and lack of comments clearly fill in what is going on in the characters’ heads. The affection and protectiveness that Son, Kid, and Boy feel for each other isn’t proclaimed in any grand manner, yet it comes through in their actions and clipped discussions. The spare style, especially as it ties in with masculinity, is perhaps reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.

Nichols also has a strong grasp of location and social conditions in SHOTGUN STORIES. Part of the conflict between the half-brothers comes from the economic disparity between them. The younger Hayes brothers may not be rich, but they live in nice homes and have a family farm to attend to. Meanwhile, Son and Kid scrape by with jobs at a fish farm, and Boy coaches youth basketball when it’s in season. Son has his hopes for more money pinned on learning how to count cards so he can win at the casino. Kid sleeps in a tent outside Son’s house while Boy stays in a conversion van that he parks at the dam because it’s cheaper than getting an apartment. Nichols doesn’t gawk at their poverty or fetishize it but rather depicts it as the reality that the characters know and accept, even if they’d like to be better situated.

As his first film, SHOTGUN STORIES shows Nichols’ promise and his need to develop as a dramatist. The build-up to the showdown between the half-brothers is filled with tension, but the film loses intensity when the grudges boil over into violence. While the spartan nature of the screenplay mirrors how these men remain relatively closed off in their personalities, Nichols draws them in fairly broad strokes. He benefits from Shannon playing Son, as he suggests a complex interior life for the oldest brother. Shortcomings aside, SHOTGUN STORIES tells a Shakespearean tale by way of the American South and points toward better things to come from its talented filmmaker.

Grade: B

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