Shotgun Stories


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

Shotgun Stories
"The slow-burning Arkansas vista is beautiful and harrowing at the same time, a panorama interrupted only by tractors dotting the horizon, but one where a car parked in the wrong place can attract a mob of pitch fork bearing men."

I'll admit I went into this film with preconceptions. A low-budget revenge drama causing a stir on the festival scene, and one called Shotgun Stories, of all things. It all sounds a bit too Tarantino-esque and, quite frankly, I'm fed up of the word Tarantino-esque. But Shotgun Stories, from first time writer-director Jeff Nichols, blasted all those away: it is a haunting revenge drama which focuses on the characters and not their weapons (tellingly, not a single shot is even fired), and it's all the more moving for it.

The film opens in the most ordinary of houses, in the heart of the mid-west, home to the sort of family who might appear on Jerry Springer, if they ever had the energy. The three laconic brothers have been cruelly labelled Son, Boy and Kid, and their names are perhaps the cause of their failure: only one of them is living under a roof, and his wife has just walked out on him. Their negligent father left them years earlier, yet managed to turn his life around, giving up the bottle and finding God, pouring his love into a new family. Blood is thicker than water, though, and the rain isn't enough to stop the trio interrupting his funeral and venting their true feelings, in front of their rival half-brothers.

Copy picture

What follows is a tit for tat feud that rapidly escalates into a bloody tragedy. But violence in itself is not the film's focus - indeed, the most brutal attacks take place off screen (as in No Country For Old Men). Instead, Shotgun Stories essays the personalities of the brothers torn between conflicting sets of values, family and honour, made even more twisted by the fact that everyone in the feud is related to each other. Their separation in upbringing is too big a bridge to cross, however, and when one rival brother offers Son a truce, all Son sees is a vessel of his father's selective affection, and spurns the offer (And with the bluntest of phrases: "I hate you").

The characters are unable to negotiate or appease because of their good ol' boys stoicism, Nichols makes clear, so it's testament to the power of the performances that we're still able to understand and empathise with them.

As elder brother and patriarchal figure Son, Michael Shannon exudes quiet authority (Nichols actually wrote the script with Shannon in mind for the part), and it is his reserved performance that makes believable the welts of a shotgun blast on his back. Their cause is only ever implied - if he received them in a robbery, it's never made out which end of the transaction he was on - which nicely underscores the blurred morality of all the characters. Doug Ligon as overweight basketball coach, Boy, is just as compelling. You can't help but feel that if he put as much care into the bonds with people actually related to him as his talentless three man team, things might have smoothed themselves out.

The only weak link is the spy character Shampoo (G Alan Wilkins), who acts as a gossiping go-between the sets of siblings, over-characterised and too reminiscent of the Brain in stylised teen-noir Brick for a film grounded in realism.

Just as stunning is the film's cinematography, an impressive feat for something shot on the fly with no dailies at all. There's a sense that the landscape shapes the lives and introverted personalities of its inhabitants, endless and relentless in its humidity. The slow-burning Arkansas vista is beautiful and harrowing at the same time, a panorama interrupted only by tractors dotting the horizon, but one where a car parked in the wrong place can attract a mob of pitch fork bearing men.

If it all sounds more like Greek tragedy than southwest Arkansas, you'd not be far off. There's a horrible sense of inevitability in the face-off, a common thread in drama which runs all the way through from Aeschylus to films such as Bullet Boy. But it doesn't feel tired here: the brothers' refusal to talk to one another is frustrating, but makes perfect sense when we see their upbringing through brief snatches of conversation (Their mother tells them they can find out when their father's funeral is through the newspaper). Hanging around in a small town, there's nothing to do but plan revenge - and nothing you can do but watch.

Reviewed on: 29 Mar 2008
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Shotgun Stories packshot
Blood ties and vengeance in rural Arkansas.
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Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynnsee Provence, G Alan Wilkins, Michael Abbott, Jr, Travis Smith

Year: 2007

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

No Country For Old Men