Monday, August 26, 2013

FI: Shotgun Stories

Shotgun Stories
US, 2007
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

When we first meet Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), he's shirtless, a scatter plot of scars across his back telling us he once took a shotgun blast, though it's a long time before we find out why. Shotgun Stories has a lot of that sort of confidence in its audience. It does not announce its intentions or waste much time on exposition, preferring to let us fill in the gaps as it ambles along. The film eases us into the ambiance of the rural Arkansas town where Son and his brothers Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon) live. We eventually realize that their generic names are likely a gift from their deadbeat father, a way to show how little he cared before finally leaving them and their vindictive mother (Vivian Morrison Norman) to start another family he liked better across town. But now he's dead, and a dust-up between Son and his hated half-brothers—all of whom have normal names, to add insult to injury—at their father's funeral leads to an escalating series of violent clashes. This cycle of inherited enmity, of parents poisoning the future for their children, is at the film's heart.

Shotgun Stories is the feature debut of writer/director Jeff Nichols, who would go on to work with Michael Shannon again in the excellent Take Shelter and this year's Mud. Nichols's films show an understanding of the turbulent inner lives of taciturn Southern men, men who were taught to do right by their families at all costs. Here, he captures the sense of pride and inevitability that keeps the two Hayes families fighting even when they know they shouldn't. Along the way, Nichols creates a strong sense of place, evoking the isolated, entrapping nature of the town through pacing and imagery without having to say much about it. It's a place where degrees of poverty matter, where even a bit more prosperity makes a huge difference. It's all on the screen, but it's up to you to look for it.

In that way, Shotgun Stories is more mental than physical, more interested in the potential for violence and the traces—both psychic and tangible (like Son's shotgun scars)—that violence leaves behind. Nichols has crafted a tone piece, populated by believable characters who give that tone color and shade. A lot happens in the interstices, either off-screen or before the film begins. Between this, and the closed-off nature of its characters due to Nichols's vision of stoic masculinity, the film may feel a little cold and slight as it approaches its conclusion. Still, Shotgun Stories is an admirable start to a promising career, and repays your careful attention if you give it half a chance.

Should you wish to see for yourself, Shotgun Stories is currently streaming on Netflix in the US.

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