The director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Jeff Nichols, favors shots of his characters, either close up or shot at a medium distance, set in contrast against landscape. We see relatively long, slow shots of two or more characters sitting together on a porch, or standing together on the verge of a field, or next to a tractor, or alongside a basketball court, or next to a truck, or by a riverbank, or even next to a tent. They don’t do much in these scenes. At most they talk. Just as often they sit or stand and do nothing. They ruminate. These shots convey their inner lives, deep emotional and intellectual processes that wend their way towards some sort of action. Most often such action means trouble.
One of Green’s mentors is, apparently, David Gordon Green, a producer for the film. In turn, we know that one of Green’s strongest influences is Terrence Malick. And so we come to understand where this film, Nichols’ first, stands in terms of filmic traditions. Yet I find Nichols less derivative than I do Green, at least in his film George Washington (2000), where he seems to feel that shooting scenes of black kids looking lonely against a small-town setting constitutes some sort of aesthetic. Nichols seems to understand the connection of scene to character, of setting to human struggle. He is particularly effective in this film at making the atmosphere of a small town, with its old-time features, quaint architectures, and fields, seem like something that is both warm and nurturing and also entangling, entrapping.
With its tale of two sets of brothers, all with the same father, but with different mothers, we have a narrative scheme that is both contemporary and Old Testament. It’s archetypal. The older brothers had as a mother a woman whom the oldest of them describes as cruel. She has no interest in her sons, even when she is told that one of them has died. The father married her before his religious conversion, and there are hints of abuse and mistreatment. He abandons the three boys when he meets his second wife, an event that is also accompanied by a religious, born-again Christian conversion, so that the younger brothers are raised by a father who treats them well and a mother who loves them. At the man’s funeral, the younger sons are grieving sincerely, while the older sons are simply angry. The oldest of the boys,” Son Hayes” (Michael Shannon), arrives late and insists on speaking to the mourners: he tells them that his father was a cruel man who abandoned him and his brothers and that they shouldn’t forget that. His comments spawn a series of events that make up the plot of the film.
Shotgun Stories is about guilt, anger, and, retribution. Sin and redemption are in play as well, but only in a secondary way. In the end, there is no satisfaction, no fulfillment of the vengeful moment the film seems to work towards. There is only a suspension of action, and we don’t know where things will head from there.
Told from the viewpoint of the older sons, the Hayes boys, the film pointedly describes each of them as distinctive individuals. Son Hayes carries the burden of his father’s abandonment most heavily. He is married and unhappy with his job with a fishery. He thinks he’s better than his $20,000 a year salary he makes, and the film suggests that he might be, if not for certain problems. Such as his gambling addiction, for which he wife temporarily leaves him. And his trouble with embittered anger. Boy Hayes lives in a van (literally) by the river and coaches basketball for a group of boys who live in a trailer park. He spends much of the film trying to repair the radio in his van. He’s pudgy and uncertain and at a key moment backs off from a fight. The youngest of the sons is Kid Hayes, a likeable but pugnacious young man who lives in a tent behind Son’s house and who is ready to propose marriage to a local girl. The generic first names of these boys (Son, Boy, Kid), who range in age from late 20s to early 30s, call attention both to how they think of one another, and (perhaps) the way in which their abandoned father once addressed them. These boys are all drifters, none of them has settled, they continue to live and socialize as if they’re adolescents, and the words “drifting” and “worthless” and “ungrounded” all come to mind as apt descriptors. Their rival younger half-brothers have actual names—Cleaman, Mark, Stephen, John—but they’re far less distinctive and individual than the boys of the first group.
The film does suggest that both groups eagerly pursue vengeance for the perceived slights they have suffered. It is at least possible that, despite our willing identification with Son, Boy, and Kid, they are the parties at fault. Son declines one if not more opportunities to apologize, to make things right, and it is the hapless Boy Hayes, the most different of all seven brothers and half-brothers, who manages at the end to bring things to what appears to be a truce.
The title--Shotgun Stories--is consistent with the revenge theme, and with what appears to be a long-standing feud between the two sets of brothers. It suggests not only their violence but also (perhaps) the culture of the small town where they live, where quiet and calm and tension are periodically punctuated (relieved?) by the blast of a shotgun and the anger and released tension that accompanies the explosive sound. The shotgun is not simply the implement by which people die, but also the volatile nature of the boys themselves. Ironically, the deaths that occur in the film result from knife fights and beatings, not from gun blasts. But it signifies the violence that in one form or the other seems to be an ever-present potential. The word “stories” implies a continuing pattern as well, a pattern that at the film’s end seems to be only suspended.
The strengths of Shotgun Stories stem from its portrayal of the local setting, the cinematography, the characters of the sons (especially the Hayes boys), and the acting. A neutral, melancholic tone pervades the film and compels us at first to view them from a distance even as their lives and personalities and history gradually draw us in.