Saturday, August 31, 2013

Shotgun Stories

2007. 90 min. PG-13. Some language, mild violence
IMDB says... Shotgun Stories tracks a feud that erupts between two sets of half brothers following the death of their father. Set against the cotton fields and back roads of Southeast Arkansas, these brothers discover the lengths to which each will go to protect their family. Written by Jeff Nichols

The 73rd Virgin says... Director/writer Jeff Nichols is from Arkansas and star Michael Shannon is from Kentucky so this story of a modern-day feud between two half-families set in the “dead ass” town of England, Arkansas ought to have some bona fides. There are some, but it seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.

With admirably lean and clean scripting we learn there are three Hayes brothers, casually named Son, Kid, and Boy by their alcoholic father and hateful mother. Daddy Hayes takes off, finds Jesus, stops drinkin’, marries a good-hearted woman, and has four more Hayes brothers, Cleamon, Mark, and the other two.

Eldest son Son is played by the towering and glowering Michael Shannon, who is 6 foot 4, ruggedly handsome with a slightly lopsided face, uneven crazy eyes, and hair that is waaaay to good for southeast Arkansas. I like him. He was later a supporting actor Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road and is given Special Thanks in these credits, so maybe he worked cheap. I read he is now appearing as General Zod in Man of Steel. I can wait.

The movie opens with Son discovering his wife has packed up and left with their boy due to his gambling habit, which he tries to justify as “a system” that he just hasn’t quite cracked yet. As Son walks around shirtless we see his back pock-marked with, one assumes, birdshot scars. That much buckshot and there would be no story. The movie derives its name from all the stories circulating around his fish farming job about how he got the scars. Needless to say he hates his parents and his mother raised him to hate his half-brothers. He knows he needs to get his life together. This is driven home perhaps once too often.

In a believable plot detail, the moment his wife moves out his two brothers move in. As Officer Cartman observed on South Park, “poor people tend to live in clusters”.

Hateful mom drops by one night to tell them their dad is dead. No she’s not going to the funeral.

But the brothers do; just long enough for Son to diss his father, spit on his casket, and launch a feud with the Hayes II brothers that will drive the rest of the movie. Drive it very slowly at times. If you’ve ever followed a combine down a highway…that kind of slow.

Nichols has a neat trick. Every scene begins calmly, or downright flatly, so the viewer is left anticipating that THIS is the scene where the revenge cycle will finally start. Strange trucks pull up in the background but someone else gets out. He always makes us wait through one more scene. Otherwise, why are we watching these somewhat dreary lives in slow-motion? I suspect in part it’s because bi-coastal movie critics like to see us this way and respond in a Pavlovian fashion. Southeast or Midwest = dull life = critical salivation.

Middle son Kid has real Arkansas hair and a ball cap and a devoted and shockingly attractive girlfriend whom he wants to marry, just as soon as he gets out of the tent in his brother’s yard. She longs for his next raise at the fish farm so they can finally be happy. This is driven home perhaps once too often.

And never forget: best looking girlfriend = biggest target on your back. You might as well be the married police veteran with five days to retirement.

Younger son Boy is a puzzle and quietly devastated by his upbringing. He coaches basketball, and presumably teaches, but lives in a nasty van with his dog and busted tape player when he’s not crashed on Son’s couch. I’m not sure why he’s this poor. He is upset that he is being pulled into this feud and responds with something like cowardice when the fists finally start to fly. He seems the least happy and most frustrated with his life. This is driven home perhaps once too often.

Everything escalates. A dog gets killed – that’s big trouble in Arkansas – then a man or two. The remaining protagonists now have to decide just how far they want to take this. The relative beauty and believability of the script comes through when the eldest brothers of the two clans are the first to resort to revenge and threats, but are not the ones who pay the highest price.

In an absolutely perfect detail the youngest brother, already suspected of cowardice, already the least in favor of further violence, is the first to reach for the big iron when things get out of hand. Like a lot of youngest brothers, he wants this shit over with so he can get on with his life. He has been following orders and it has led to THIS.

But the same script has the incomprehensible twist in which everyone goes back to fists after there are deaths (it’s as if the Jets and the Sharks decide to have a dance-off after Tony gets killed). Apparently Son never allowed guns in the house. Now, I’ve known some of these people…a few birdshot scars is NOT a good enough reason to have younger brothers who have never handled a shotgun. Even if Nichols is from Arkansas, I’m from Kansas and Texas and you need to trust me on this.

Also, in a town where everyone knows everything about everybody down to every detail, it somehow escaped the police’s notice that the original killing involved more than just two people.

And you can always tell male first-time story tellers by their female characters; two of them are utterly angelic in their attractiveness and devotion to their rather slipshod beaus. One is a monster-mother.

But this scene is beautifully done.

The pacing and plotting improve near the end. Hopeful decisions are made that everyone will have to live with. It is tense, delicate and nicely done.

Despite this movie, and the more recent Take Shelter, which Ebert also gave four stars and described as “masterful filmmaking”, I’m still not quite ready to embrace Nichols as my auteur of my fly-over country. I love his love for flat horizons shot at a low angle with lots of sky. I love his ear for how real people talk and his willingness to linger on conversations a few beats after they seem to be over. But even an art house fan like me can wish for a little snappier editing and crisper story telling.

Could be I’m just jealous.

Nichol's most recent movie, Mud, is running 98% at Rotten Tomatoes, so I'm there soon.

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