Three brothers, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid ( Barlow Jacobs) are abandoned by their father when children and left to be raised by a ‘hateful woman’, their mother . The father starts a new family in the same empty-ass town. ‘If I owned this town, I’d sell it,’ says one of the brothers. But since their father abandoned them they don’t own ‘the square root of shit’. When he dies, the eldest (Michael Shannon) goes to his funeral, says some nasty words about him, spits on his grave, and starts a feud that will destroy both sets of brother. There’s an interesting idea at the heart of this film, which reads with a soupçon of naffness, e.g. ‘We’re All Brothers’ or as Michael Jackson sings, ‘We Are the World’ but which the film dramatises with real depth and feeling.
Shotgun Stories first depicts their economic and emotional context: Boy is living in his van; Kid wants to get married but has no truck or house and is living in a tent in Son’s backyard; and Son has a gambling problem which he sees as a system and which results in the woman he loves and who loves him leaving with their child to her mother’s. The place is rural Arkansas, wide-open spaces, between field and river, in the midst of an economic dowturn. It’s a place where taking a date out to a buffet marks a special occasion; where button-down shirts are such a rarity, the ability to borrow them becomes a delight; where a burrito is a breakfast treat, and where a beat-up air-conditioner comes in handy outside.
The people and the place are the context through which the film gets real dramatic tension as the feud between both sets of brothers unfolds. Those boys are carrying the burden of a code of manliness and also a history of a shared past. Both are damaging. Eventually even Son will realize that the protecting of his own brothers results in death or injury to another set of brothers, but since they are also his own kin, hurting that other set of brothers is also hurting his own. It’s a no-win situation.
Shotgun Stories is set in a different kind of America than we’re used to seeing, rural, small town; a welcome view of it that finds beauty in the ordinary; all these wide-angle shots of industrial detritus in open-spaced fields, mobile homes, tract housing. But we are shown beauty in those falling-down buildings in that overgrown landscape, in the rust that crops up in the image regularly, even in the fishing scenes by the river. It’s a rural America that’s gone to seed. Everything that man has built is ugly but the wind and the vegetation and the rust are in their own way transforming, returning the place and the people to something beautiful and true but not without first undergoing change, pain, and various kinds of destruction.
The transformation begins with detritus, rust, anger; at a fight that starts in a funeral and sparks a feud. Images from nature abound. The opening image is that of cotton (I didn’t realize the flowering bud could be so beautiful) which then gets harvested, the gorgeous water-lillies that we see near the fish farm, and lastly a startling red flower at the end. There’s lots of reaping and sowing in this film: of cotton, of fish, and of people’s actions. But we’re also allowed to see the beauty inherent in nature and in people.
The quasi-hillbilly feud at the heart of the film is told with a gentle and open-hearted tone that brings to mind a combination of elements of slacker culture and a good-old-Southern-boy setting, as if Richard Linklater had tried to look into Burt Reynold’s heart in Smoky and the Bandit and found it brimming with pure pioneer spirit. Shotgun Stories brings in some mythic elements ( the very names of the brothers, the speculation around the shotgun wounds on Son’s back vs how how he really got them – the ‘Shotgun Stories’ the film ends up telling) but with a tight touch and always in the service of showing us the beauty in, and depth of, people’s feelings.
Michael Shannon as Son reminds me of Henry Fonda; the same lankyness and understated masculinity; a similar low, soft drawl; the transparency with which both actors convey an unspoken but complex interior life; but Shannon is more rugged, less pretty than Fonda. Shannon speaks softly and slowly, always a beat after what his face tells us so clearly, with the words he speaks sometimes slightly at odds with what his face has just said. It’s a beautiful performance.
Nichols is wonderful at showing the relationships amongst and between men; the brothers in a way are all men just trying to get by and barely hanging in there. They simply want to build a decent life for themselves but only nature and kin give them any bliss (the sunsets, the fishing, sharing a beer on the porch). The depths of emotion they feel for each other is largely unsaid but beautifully evoked. They all just want a girl, a home, some kids. But history is against them. It’s wonderful to see a film where the focus is on men feeling rather than merely doing, and where what’s at stake is simple things like jobs, housing, relationships, a dream of a slightly better future, the building and maintenance of family and community (the feud is just a catalyst). It’s a lovely film, beautifully directed, with the director not afraid to hold a shot in which nothing much seems to happen, and with an eye for beauty both visual and internal. I found it very touching