Shotgun Stories – 2008

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Barlow Jacobs, Glenda Pannell, Douglas Ligon, Lynnsee Provence, Travis Smith, Natalie Canerday, G. Alan Wilkins, Michael Abbott Jr.

Son (Shannon), Boy (Ligon) and Kid (Jacobs) Hayes are 3 grown men that had been raised by a single mother.  Their father (Cleaman), who left them when the men were young, stopped drinking, found God and had 4 more boys in a second marriage.  He stuck around for these four, causing much resentment over the years.  When it is revealed that he has died, the boys make their way to the funeral and Son gives a speech that starts the wheels churning between the two sets of half brothers.  Soon enough, tensions rise to a flash-point, and all lives are forever changed.

The roots of the story are traditional Hatfield-McCoy, but the presentation is anything but typical.  This is primarily because the principals, despite not being (all but Shannon) seasoned actors, all have a real sense of what it is to live in a place where the head of the sun drowns out any sort of ambition.  Having seen Shannon in some short clips provided by his professor, Jeff Nichols wrote the script with him in mind for his protagonist, Son.  Rarely has there been an actor / director combination that has been so cohesive as these two.  Perhaps Keitel, and Scorcese, but those two had the advantage of growing up in film school together.

Shannon has a subtlety that does not easily reveal the internal strife and eternal responsibility that does not end at any point in the day.  He doles it out in tiny bits, unfurling like a big old flag that has been tucked away for years.  At any moment he could break out in a wave of anguished, honest tears…but he never does.  Over the past year I have become enamored with his style.  I have heard that he plays a big part of Boardwalk Empire.  I will be watching it soon.  He has a comfortable existence on the camera wherever he is seen.  Whether his is sitting on the porch, working with fishing nets or in a one-sided argument with his wife, one gets the feeling of being a fly on the wall, and not observing anyone actually at work in front of a camera.

“You know,” he says, with simple, honest reflection, “I used to be able to divide up to 4 decimal points in my head.”

Shampoo (Wilkins) plays, in accordance to Nichols, as the “white trash Greek chorus,” in how he shuttles information between the two sets of brothers.  His character is genius, really, as the only true antagonist in the tale.  The half-brothers share no love over the many years that they are raised in the same town.  They are, effectively, in two different worlds, though.  Wilkins is brilliant in the role, even if they just found him hanging around the set.

Nichols has a way of showing fighting as lacking glamour and, frankly, embarrassingly hard to look “cool” while  in the act.  This was his intent, I think.  Very little good has ever come from violence in human history, but it is too often recalled in a positive way.  Shannon’s Son is aware of this, as indicated by the mystery of the shotgun blast scars on his back.  Many tall tales exchanged between characters in the story about the origin of the wound flail desperately around the kinds of things you’d expect.  Never once does Son ever mention anything about it.  Therein lies the brilliance of the story in its title and execution.

Many who make their first film utilize the people and the places familiar to them.  The difference with Nichols is that he has more in mind than getting his friends and family on camera: he has a message that is relevant in a humanistic and artistic way.  And like any great work, we learn about ourselves in the process.  Jeff Nichols is a significant filmmaker who has much to offer.  In watching this film, one can only be amazed at how much he grows  without missing a beat.  His future is bright, and we shall be the benefactors of its light.

(***** out of *****)

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