Shotgun Stories (2008): Jeff Nichols’ Directing Debut

Shotgun Stories, the feature directorial debut of Jeff Nichols, does proud to regional independent cinema, now represented by David Gordon Green (who’s credited here as co-producer) and in the past by such seminal figures as Michael Almereyda and Richard Linklater (both Texas) and Victor Nunez (Florida).

“Shotgun Stories,” a low-budget movie that cost only $168,000, has won awards and played many film festivals. It was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Spirit Awards, and will be released April 18 by International Film Circuit-Liberation Entertainment.

Shotgun Stories
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Theatrical release poster

Digging deep into the sources of male rage, vengeance, and tragic violence, the aptly titled film, also written by Nichols, goes for allegorical tones, but works best as a haunting saga of one peculiar family defined by a feud that erupts between two sets of half brothers after the death of their father.

Set against the cotton fields and back roads of Southeast Arkansas, the tale explores the lengths to which each brother will go to protect the family’s name.

In the opening sequence, we observe shotgun scars on Son Hayes’ back, though he never speaks about them. The imagery is powerful: The shotgun pellets under his skin make for sporadic pattern of blue-black dots. The men he works with speculate and take bets on how Son did get them. Son’s brothers, Boy and Kid Hayes, don’t discuss it either. Nonetheless, Son’s past, just like the scars, is never really left behind him.

Hovering over the brothers’ present is the memory of Son’s father, a man who never bothered to give his children proper names, deserting the trio when they were quite young. Their last impressions of their dad is of a violent drunk who never hesitated to put his selfish needs ahead of his family. The three brothers were raised by their mother, a hateful woman, who continues to blame her children for her miserable life–and the man she could not keep.

We get the impression that the father had managed to move on and put his life back together. After sobering up, he became a devout Christian, married a wonderful woman, and fathered four new sons, all of whom received proper names. Based on his success in business, community and family, his new life is a model to aspire to; the only memory of failure is represented by the other sets of sons.

When the saga begins, we find Son, Boy and Kid as grown men. However, as often is the case in such dark Gothic family sagas, the past inevitably comes back to haunt and claim them. Following a dispute at their father’s funeral, a feud simmers between these sons and the other set of young men their father had raised. It’s an anger that had always rested in the background of their lives, but now, it has risen up to unbearable proportions, threatening to overtake them all. Hence, it’s only a matter of time before violence of biblical measure erupts, forever changing the lives of the entire clan.

In the press notes, Jeff Nichols notes that, “There is never victory in revenge,” which is a good way to sum up the logic of his narrative. What is debatable, however, is to what extent he succeeds in demythologizing his protagonists’ uncontrollable rage, hate, and shame. So long as Nichols keeps his tale grounded in its particular locale, “Shotgun Stories” is an effectively brooding and unsettling work. It’s when Nichols tries to attain broader allegorical meanings that his film becomes overreaching and less successful.

That said, for a first feature, “Shotgun Stories” is striking on any number of levels.
As shot by Adam Stone, the film is visually impressive, with the cotton fields and farmland defining the characters that live in a slow burn South where everyone sweats for their living. The towns and the people have been left to their own devices, which makes for characters that keep their thoughts and emotions closely guarded. They aren’t comfortable or articulate to express themselves, and when they do talk, their words don’t always tell the entire story.

Nichols also gets excellent performances from his male-dominated cast, particularly from Michael Shannon as Son, a tall man with a large frame who projects suppressed anger and ominous menace just by the intensity of his screen presence. If “Shotgun Stories” is commercially successful, it should promote the career of a thespian who has appeared in smaller parts in numerous films, such as “Bug,” in which he was also truly scary, “World Trade Center,” and most recently, “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” but has not received his due recognition yet.

Credits:

Directed, written by Jeff Nichols
Produced by David Gordon Green
Music by Lucero, Pyramid
Cinematography Adam Stone
Edited by Steven Gonzales
Distributed by Multicom Entertainment Group Inc.

Release date: March 26, 2008

Running time: 92 minutes
Budget $250,000
Box office $168,237