Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Shotgun Stories

Channeling David Gordon Green and using his cinematographer, Shotgun Stories is an excellent breakout film by Jeff Nichols about two sets of sons of a now-reformed alcoholic bastard of a father, who finally meet. At first it sounds like a redneck joke, but give it a chance. Michael Shannon plays Son- wearing scars from a shotgun blast on his back and simmering with unrequited rage. His brothers are Boy- a likeable basketball coach who lives, as they say, in a van down by the river- and Kid, the youngest and most lost of the three. He lives in a tent on Son's lawn. But he's got a girl he wants to marry someday. Their names make evident how little they were cared about by their runaway father and their "hateful woman" of a mother. We meet them through quiet, muted vignettes of their poor, common lives- working at fish farms, trying to run an air conditioner off a car battery, holding court on the front porch. It could be a joke on Arkansas if it wasn't handled by someone who grew up there.
One day mom shows up to tell them their Dad has died. In a brief scene we learn all there is to know about their past. "When's the funeral?" "You can find out in the paper." "You going?" "No." Well, Son and his bothers do go, and find their father's new family grieving over his coffin. Son says that whatever good he did after he left them will never erase all the wrongs he committed, and spits on the corpse, sparking a blood feud. The "new family" only knew a loving father, and is outraged; the first set of boys only knows an abusive monster.
It does not spiral into a revenge or rednexploitation film from here, even though it easily could. If anything, it resembles the excellent Dead Man's Shoes, but is much more reserved. Amazingly, first time actors- especially "Boy," and "Shampoo," a local instigator who seems to treat the two sets of sons like ants to make fight- hold up to Michael Shannon's organic ability and piercing eyes. If you thought he stole the show in Revolutionary Road you owe it to yourself to rent this.
Like Green's All the Real Girls and George Washington, Nichols' Shotgun Stories deftly captures the feeling of small town rural life, and makes us pay fierce attention to its subtle maneuverings. This is one of the best overlooked films of last year and encapsulates the pain of being wronged, and the difficulty of coming to peace with it. The film does not end as you might expect, and even when no one's inner rage is bursting forth, it's a good time sitting with these boys. And if you pay close attention, you'll learn the shotgun story.

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