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Shotgun Stories

Posted by martinteller on September 12, 2014

Three brothers living in small town Arkansas.  Son (Michael Shannon) works at a fish farm, and his gambling problem has chased away his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell), who took their boy Carter with her.  Kid (Barlow Jacobs) works with Son, and moves into his house after Annie departs.  Youngest brother Boy (Douglas Ligon) coaches basketball to kids and lives in his van.  They are the Hayes brothers, but they’re not the only ones.  Their abusive father abandoned them, cleaned up his act, “found” Jesus and started a new, middle-class family with four sons: Mark (Travis Smith), Cleaman (Michael Abbott Jr.), Stephen (Lynnsee Provence) and John (David Rhodes).  Old man Hayes dies, and the black sheep brothers show up at the funeral, where Son speaks his mind about what kind of man he really was.  Mark is enraged, and a feud is born.

I wasn’t at all surprised to see David Gordon Green had a producer credit on this film, the debut by Jeff Nichols.  The movie occupies a setting and a tone reminiscent of Green’s first two features, George Washington and All the Real Girls.  It’s a particular take on Southern America that steers clear of condescending stereotypes while still acknowledging the issues of class and poverty.  Son isn’t a stupid man, but he’s born to unfortunate circumstances.  Even his name — like the names of his brothers — is an indication that the world will always look down on him.  They’ll tell lurid stories about the shotgun scars on his back without bothering to ask him the real truth behind them (with welcome restraint, Nichols only hints at their origin).

The movie builds gently, allowing us to get comfortable with these characters (before and even in between moments of violence and tension, there is some humor).  Less time is spent with the other group of Hayes boys, but we feel some of their pain too.  By gradually increasing the stakes in this duel, the consequences are more deeply tragic and wasteful.  My only quibble is that at one point Son takes an action that doesn’t feel like the Son I’ve come to know.  I don’t mean to say it’s wildly out of character.  It could certainly be explained as a moment of weakness or frustration, or an inability to negate the hate that’s been drilled into him by his mother.  I just think there could have been a little something extra to convince me.

It’s a small complaint.  The film melds quiet beauty (the score by Ben Nichols — Jeff’s brother and member of the band Lucero — is lovely and very appropriate for the material) with creeping dread, evoking sympathy for this trio of struggling brothers while giving us permission to wince at their errors in judgment.  Growth does occur, but it comes at too high a cost.  Shannon is a talent to be reckoned with, and although none of the actors are as impressive, it’s a fine cast.  Following this up with Take Shelter and Mud, Jeff Nichols has established a superb track record.  Apparently his next project has a sci-fi angle, it will be interesting to see him strike out into new territory.  Rating: Very Good (84)


2 Responses to “Shotgun Stories”

  1. Dan Heaton said

    I just watched this for the first time this summer, and it did not disappoint. It’s a brutal film on the emotional side, and Michael Shannon is definitely up for the challenge. It really sets up Jeff Nichols for even greater heights with his next two films.

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