Shotgun Stories Reviews
Shotgun Stories takes a while to bust out the referenced shotguns, and I'll admit I was feeling a little itchy waiting for the climactic bloodshed.
I'll save you the trouble of wondering: it was worth the wait.
The indie-drama falls decidedly into the tragedy category and focuses on a blood-feud which spirals inexorably towards the horrific but expected clash of two sets of half-brothers. Son, played by the perennially underrated Michael Shannon, and his younger brothers, Boy and Kid, were abandoned by their drunken father early in life. After the separation, their father went onto sober up, find Jesus, and raise a Mulligan-family of four brothers born of his second wife. His new family (the Hayes), operate a large and clearly successful farm, which we're lead to believe the reformed father built up once he crawled out from the bottle and into Jesus's hands.
Son, Boy, and Kid are clearly impoverished - Boy lives in his van, Kid in a tent outside Son's rinkydink trailer - so it's no surprise that they hate the Hayes and the life their father built for them. Then one night their vengeful mother- who encouraged the feud, and knew exactly what she was doing when she incited the events to follow- shows up at Son's house to inform the three brothers that their father is dead.
Hitherto we've only seen Son as a quiet, relatively pacifist protagonist. The turning point- both for the movie and my viewer experience- is when he interrupts the funeral with his brothers in tow and demands to speak.
With all the Hayes family in attendance, he basically calls their father a piece of crap. Maybe he wasn't sure he'd gotten his point across, because he caps it off by hacking a loogie right on the old man's casket.
That's when I busted out the popcorn. The old man's second wife intercedes to prevent an outright brawl at the funeral, and Son and his brothers are able to depart without any violence, but there's not a doubt in my mind that this is only the beginning.
The Hayes brothers, befuddled by grief for the good man they knew as their father, are out for blood, and Son, Boy, and Kid are (for the most part) happily willing to unleash their lifetime of simmering rancor for the man they knew as a violent drunk.
The impressive writer-director debut by Jeff Nichols is unmistakably an indy-film in tone and theme. There's a lot of 'negative space' here: a character stares off into the distance, and the audience is forced to wonder at a tick of the eyebrow or quirk of the lips what's going through their head. Son's character carries the majority of the weight there: a lesser actor might have sunk the project, but Michael Shannon packs marvelous punch with his limited dialogue, and he manages the 'simple man' affect without seeming dumb. As a matter of fact, his long pauses and nuanced expression delivers the exact opposite: we see an intelligent man who's slow to speak his mind (and is even something of a doormat when it comes to confrontation) but - once the tension and violence amp up - doesn't hesitate to defend himself and his family.
Plot-wise, the violence is brutal and gut-wrenching, but it isn't the focus. The worst of it all occurs off-screen, but the gamble pays off, and plays into Shotgun Stories global theme: the hopelessness of violence and hatred.
It's a powerful theme in our age. Sure, most of us haven't incited a familial feud by spitting on our deadbeat dad's casket, but the themes of senseless division and reckless hate are more prescient than ever. Whether it's Shiites and Sunnis or Republicans and Democrats, we're all too aware of the cultures of division, partisanship and sectarianism in our modern world. The viewer will undoubtedly connect to Shotgun Stories and its overarching theme. While you won't find any Juliet to Son's Romeo- besides perhaps his wife, who's just left him at the film's opening scene- there are definite parallels between the age-old Capulet-Montague dynamic. Considering the self-defeatism the film portrays as inherent to such a conflict, one might argue it reaches back to Shakespeare's own source material, the Greek tragedy. The deeper Son and his brothers delve into the conflict brewing with the Hayes clan, the more we come to understand that nothing good can possibly come of it.
Besides Shannon, the acting is good but not noteworthy, with the exception perhaps of Son's wife (played by Nicole Canerday), the criminal but likeble Shampoo (played by G. Alan Wilkins, an apparent nobody who I'd love to see more from), and Cleaman Hayes (Michael Abbot Jr.). Cleaman's character stands out especially as the single reasonable Hayes brother, and Abbot's acting delivers a convincing portrait of a brother trying to keep the peace but unwilling to let his brothers fight a war on their own.
Aside from Cleaman, however, the Hayes closely resemble human-shaped turds, and I have to admit that I spent a decent portion of the film hoping Son would finally go grab that promised shotgun and finish the damn thing already, even knowing the film wasn't headed that direction. I put the onus of that failing, however, squarely on the director and writers' shoulders. If I had any single major complaint with the film, it's that it didn't fully convince me that the majority of the Hayes didn't deserve to be wiped from the face of the earth, which is clearly not what the film aimed for. Aside from Cleaman, two of the brothers are all but villainized, and the final brother has the screen-presence of a wet noodle (none). Though Son is the unquestioned protagonist, Nichols wanted me to sympathize with the Hayes brothers as the other side of the same coin, which I simply could not in good consciense do. Regardless of the fact that Son did spit on their daddy's casket, I couldn't see the Hayes as anything but instigators and 'the bad guys' until the very end, which was too late a reversal for me to buy in. I'll give Nichols a pass, though, since he met and sometimes surpassed the mark he aimed for everywhere else.
Overall I'm glad I was recommended this film by a trusted friend; otherwise, I might have bailed early on an amazing film. While the themes and acting are powerful, the opening is slow. Maybe if I'd seen its original release back in 2007 I wouldn't bat an eye at the slow start, but these days we've all got smartphones. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, either. Shotgun Stories is a little more in-your-head than the average American viewer might want from even a drama. The literary tone and unmistakable flavor of indy production isn't for everyone.
Regardless, I'd stand by it as a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a character-driven story heavy on themes of family loyalty, self-damning hate, and - we can only hope - finally ending the cycle.