About once a month or so I browse the new release section of my local video store. Most of these stores have gone the way of the dinosaur, but this one is part of a national chain, Family Video, and seems to be doing quite well. I’ve stumbled across some interesting films there, mostly indie releases, and Shotgun Stories was one of these. Picking it up and reading the description, the name of the producer caught my eye. It was David Gordon Green, whose own film Snow Angels I had watched and liked. On the strength of that, and on the appeal of the synopsis, I took it home. I did not really know what to expect from a film from a first-time director and a cast of (to me) unknowns, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised.
The story concerns two sets of half-brothers and the escalating feud that develops between them when the eldest son of the older set insults their newly deceased father at his funeral. This man had been an abusive drinker in his first family, but after leaving them cleaned himself up, got religion, and became a moderately successful farmer, fathering four more sons with his new wife. The original three Hayes boys, Son, Boy, and Kid (their impersonal names seem to reflect their father’s lack of interest in them) have been raised by their mother, a bitter, spiteful woman who transferred her animosity towards her ex-husband and his new family onto her sons. At one point in the story after a particularly hurtful incident, Son comes to tell his mother what has happened. She has no response, to which he says "You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this." That could sum up the theme of the story which, as one reviewer has said, brings classical, even Biblical drama down to the scale of small town life. Point being, it’s all ultimately human, whether the antagonists are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, or the two sets of Hayes brothers.
The film runs for only an hour and a half or so, but takes its time in a somewhat Malick-esque fashion. Wide, lingering landscape shots set the tone, and sometimes serve as links between the dramatic scenes. The dialogue is minimalist, but no less rich and telling for that. And despite the title, the violence is sporadic and brief, realistic, but not in a graphic or gory way. Oddly enough, this serves to make it more painful-looking when it does occur. The acting is all top notch, despite the largely unknown cast, but Michael Shannon is a standout as the eldest brother. He manages to communicate his character’s inner moral confusion with minimal speechmaking and facial expression, doing it all in a way that makes it all seem completely realistic. I don’t know any other actor currently working who’s able to make this minimalist approach work like Shannon does. When he’s in a scene you don’t want to take your eyes off him, because he’s able to communicate so much while seemingly using so little.
Much credit also must be given to first time director Nichols, who took a miniscule budget and made one of the best films of 2007. Seldom has a first time director, coming out of nowhere, demonstrated such maturity and confidence. The film is morally quite serious, and in no sense can be reduced to simply a “revenge picture.” As such, despite its rather simple plot, it’s a film which grows upon repeat viewings, and which can thus prompt a fair amount of discussion, especially for the viewer who’s interested in the human side of such dramas.
Jeff Nichols has gone on to direct three additional films, all of them very good – Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. And he’s only 37, which means that he made Shotgun Stories when he was still in his 20’s. An auspicious beginning, I’d say.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.