As children, we are urged to deflect insults by recalling the tried-and-true rhyme, “sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt me.” However, even if we repeat that phrase until we’re blue in the face, the secret that no one ever wants to admit is that names do hurt. And still reeling from the pain, it makes us recall another childhood morality lesson, specifically that “actions speak louder than words.” In fact, it’s what we do with those actions — whether it’s as simple as turning around and walking away or striking a blow — wherein we not only reveal our true character but sometimes, whether fair or not, chart the course our lives will take.
In Shotgun Stories, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ startling and deceptively quiet filmmaking debut about a bitter feud between two families, insults and violence coincide. And more than just creating an instant visceral viewer response to the film and its inhabitants, the bleak foreshadowing and bursts of hatred makes one think just as much about what we’re not being presented onscreen. Particularly we find ourselves dwelling upon what isn’t being said or done and what may or may not have happened in the past to the wounded, struggling young men depicted throughout the film. It’s only when you realize you’re that invested in a film that your mind begins to race to understand each nuance as if somehow you can reach inside the screen to intervene or mediate that you realize you’re in the hands of a masterful storyteller.
Produced by George Washington and All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green, Nichols’ award-winning festival favorite has garnered unprecedented word-of-mouth support from such notable critics as its greatest champion, Roger Ebert. It's been frequently compared to a modern day Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean epic, biblical morality play, as well as a new spin on the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. While every one of those parallels that have been drawn are indeed correct, one realizes more than anything and only within a few moments of Shotgun Stories, that this story is so effective because it's painted using many of the same brushstrokes as numerous other Southern Gothic morality plays, where the sparsely populated canvas is filled with wide open spaces and the dialogue is lean, muscular and only employed when absolutely necessary.
Not to mention there’s something about Nichols’ work that feels as though it could only happen in the United States as the sense that an American tragedy looms heavily as soon as we witness our main character, Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), a fish farm employee with a weakness for gambling, change his shirt to reveal that the overly scarred skin on his back resembles a bullet strewn battlefield. Additionally, upon discovering that the formerly abusive, drunk father who’d abandoned him and his two brothers had passed away, we realize that the father took the American opportunity of a second chance to become a born-again Christian, quit the bottle, and start a whole new family with four sons he’s doted on who live nearby in far better condition than Son’s discarded brood.
While the bitter mother who raised them refuses to go to the funeral, Son and his other apathetically named brothers, the loyal, sweet natured Boy (Douglas Ligon) who coaches children’s basketball and lives in a van overlooking the river, and the youngest brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs) make an appearance wherein, fueled by so many years of resentment and anger, Son curses his biological father and spits on his grave. In this volatile combination of insult and action, a war is declared by the four newest Hayes boys who consider Son, Boy, and Kid to be “a pack of dogs” without manners and they’re all too eager to get revenge.
What begins as a series of hard stares, dangerous pranks, and macho confrontations soon escalates into inevitable violence and although we’re prepared for it early on, it still comes as a shock when the boys start trying to one-up each other with an eye for an eye. Interestingly playing off that biblical warning that soon everyone will be blind, Nichols introduces us to a Shakespearean clown-like character named Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins). He initially seems to be a laughable slacker but gradually grows into first an observer of the increasing rivalry but also an outside agitator as he not only eggs them on by reporting gossip overheard from the new brothers to the old ones but also in a climactic moment teaches one angry brother how to prepare a shotgun.
Still, admirably, much like the dialogue that is only offered when it’s crucial, the director isn’t one to revel in violence or go overboard in too much symbolism, which is quite a feat for a new filmmaker and especially one who’s following in the footsteps of such a rich historical tradition of classical tales of familial revenge. In the end it’s another one of those excellent, underrated independent films that may otherwise go unnoticed if it weren’t for its tremendous success earning awards and nominations from festivals across the country.
Impressively, Shotgun Stories feels far more naturalistic and real than most Hollywood films which deal with revenge-based violence and benefits from not only stellar acting especially by scene stealer Ligon in a heartbreaking role but also for its crisp cinematography which is punctuated by a nice, subtle score that becomes all the more apparent on repeat viewings, especially considering that the DVD offers an option to watch Shotgun Stories with a music only track from the band Lucero and composer, musician Ben Nichols. Featuring a photo gallery as well as trailers and an insightful audio commentary from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories is one sleeper you won’t want to miss and one that — much like the effects of a shot — will probably continue to ricochet as more viewers discover this hidden work I highly recommend.