Shotgun Stories (2007)
Jeff Nichols gives his stark impression of American smalltown/rural life, depicted via an escalating family conflict between a deceased man's two sets of sons, none of whom were born with a silver spoon in mouth. Set in Nichols' home state of Arkansas, Shotgun Stories depicts people living in modern times leading antiquated ways of life. His rivaling families adhere to the values of the old west, with pride, bloodline, revenge and property as key defining terms. Nichols has more compassion than respect for his characters, but he asks us to understand them, see their actions and urges in light of their background - a background which shows the extreme contrasts in modern USA.
The talented Michael Shannon drives the action forward with his steadfast, powerful performance. He is Son, the acting pater familias of three brothers with an estranged, unloving mother and a father who left them as kids to start a new family with another wife. Their daily life consists of emptying beer cans sitting on lawns and patios, living in a desolated town populated by the few whose pride and lack of ambition have kept them staying. Family is all that matters, and Son has two underachieving brothers, Boy and Kid, played with a disquieting affinity by Douglas Ligon and Barlow Jacobs. When their father dies and the three brothers decide to show up at the funeral to voice their opinion about the man who once abandoned them, his new family reacts and instigates a long-dormant conflict.
Although Nichols has both the local knowledge and the filmatic talent to create a harrowing authenticity for his account, his film also turns out to share its characters' single-mindedness. Like the brothers, he knows where this is heading, and he doesn't make an effort to conceal it or pause along the way. The film's tone and tempo is characteristically indie, which gives it a sense of truthfulness, but also keeps the undoubted tension of the story a little at bay, as Nichols always maintains a certain distance as he observes with his camera. Shotgun Stories is a promising debut from a filmmaker who certainly has got something to say and the ability to make the observations to go along with it.