Underrated: Shotgun Stories

The brothers are named Son, Boy and Kid. These are their legal names. Their father, a drunk who changed his ways grew a conscience, left his three sons and started a new family after his metamorphosis. They grew up fending for themselves in a rural Arkansas town. Son, the oldest (played by the always brilliant Michael Shannon), is a fisherman. He is quiet and filled with fury. Boy, the middle child, coaches middle school basketball and lives in his van. He has no fight left in him after a troubled adolescence. Kid, the youngest, is a mechanic for Kia Motors and looking for a raise. He’s loud and belligerent and ready to fight anybody who opposes the brothers.

We see their lives as simple and desperate. The brothers have no money, no direction, no ambition. Son lives in a shotgun shack beside a wild field that used to harvest the family’s farm. His house is the only semblance of what used to be a successful, happy family.

The film, written and directed by Take Shelter‘s Jeff Nichols, begins with the brothers learning that their father has died, and that the funeral is taking place tomorrow. When the brothers arrive at the funeral, we find out that the other family — the half brothers — are affluent and proud. They love their father and everything he stood for. Son can’t handle this fact. He is suffocated by the idea that his father may have been a good man. That a good man may have left his three boys behind in order to make a new life, as if his own children were the evidence of a misdeed.

Son decides he’s got something to say at the funeral. He tells the congregation that his father was an evil man. That he left his family all alone to fend for themselves. Son spits on his father’s coffin. This starts a war between the families.

Like he does in Take Shelter, Nichols relies heavily on the silent intensity of Shannon’s presence. He is truly amazing, here. Everything he does feels calculated, precise. His anger is revealed only in short bursts, punctuating his otherwise calm temperament.

The film is a parable. The police don’t exist. The town is a vacuum where all that matters is the war between the families. Shotgun Stories is reminiscent of David Gordon Green (who serves as a producer)’s early films, such as George Washington or Snow Angels. The narrative is episodic and focused primarily on the rural life of a community. The characters are intelligent without ambition. Sometimes it’s hard not to see them as bums, but the closer we get to them, the more we can sympathize with how simply they live.

Shotgun Stories is a surprising success. Its deliberate pacing and episodic nature mirror that of an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama. The writing is king, whereas the visuals only seem to serve as vehicles for dialogue. It’s an interesting film that is, for some reason, never really talked about. Hopefully the success of Take Shelter will increase the demand for what I find to be one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in quite some time.

I give Shotgun Stories an 8 out 10 wet coffins.

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