"You started all of this."
"This started a long time ago."
"Somebody's gonna finish it."
I was introduced to the work of indie director Jeff Nichols with his 2011 film "Take Shelter," which I consider to be a tremendous film, one of the best of a great year; I hope to review it here at some point, but I want to watch it again first. Going back in time to 2007, however, I discovered that his first feature film, "Shotgun Stories," both shows the promising talent that would go on to make "Take Shelter," and lacks the focus and haunted intensity of that masterful follow-up.
Nichols' impressive debut opens showing the towering Michael Shannon sitting on the edge of a bed, shirtless, reading a note, his arms resting wearily on his knees. He is half turned from us, and we can see the faint shape of deep marks on his back. He gets up and checks two dresser drawers, finding them both empty. Then for a moment he turns his back completely, and we are faced with those marks full on: pocked-looking scars cover his back in a scattered pattern, ugly little craters from a shotgun blast. Title card: "Shotgun Stories."
Shannon plays a character named simply "Son" who lives with his brothers, "Boy" and "Kid" in southeast Arkansas. They are left with these dubiously blunt monikers because their father abandoned the family to restart with a new wife and a new life. Son lives in an empty house because his wife (or girlfriend?) Annie has taken their son and left due to his refusal to give up card-counting, which he insists is not gambling but a "system." Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives in an old van with a broken stereo and a window air conditioner, and coaches kids' basketball. Kid (Barlow Jacobs) lives in a tent in Son's yard, but expects a raise soon at the catfish farm where he and Son work, at which point he intends to ask his quietly cheerful waitress girlfriend Cheryl to marry him. Their lives progress at a leisurely pace, and Nichols' fleshes out the beautiful but decaying rural atmosphere with a Malick-like attention to cotton fields and sunsets and a gentle acoustic guitar score. Then the brothers' mother, who Son refers to as a "hateful woman," drops by to inform them that their father is dead. She is not going to the funeral. When is it? They can look in the paper.
At the funeral, the minister calls the father "a man of faith" and "a productive member of the community." Son calls him "the same man who ran out on us," and proceeds to spit on the casket. This provokes the other band of brothers attending, the ones wearing buttoned-down shirts and ties, the second set of sons, the Hayes boys, who received from their father real names like Mark, Steve, and John. Son's rash action brings the two clans almost to blows, but that is just the beginning. The conflict between Son, Boy, and Kid and the Hayes brothers slowly but steadily escalates throughout the film, aided by a friend of Kid's with the doubtful name of Shampoo, who seems to be quietly spoiling for a fight, and deals in information and rumors that only make things worse, as well as showing the ropes of gun use at a crucial juncture.
Son's scars get referred to repeatedly throughout the film, a reoccurring commentary I found annoying and too obvious at first. But there are conflicting reports of how he got the scars, and eventually they handily and indirectly inform how we think of him and his brothers. Shannon contributes to the sense that this is an almost legendary character by keeping Son stonily aloof throughout, burying his bitterness, while the themes of legacy and inheritance that the scar stories (the title's shotgun stories?) plant are developed further later in the script. "Is that your boy?" one of the Hayes brothers asks Son. "Wonder how he's gonna take it when I give a speech at your funeral." Nichols follows the insinuating aggression of that line with a perfect, heartbreaking cut away shot of Son's son watching another fight beginning, making clear the generational stakes of the conflict. Son wants to be a good father, taking his son fishing, but the anger of the feud threatens to override his more protective impulses.
A slow, thoughtful film about poverty, revenge, and inheritance, "Shotgun Stories" is very quietly disturbing, with under-the-surface tension that builds to quick, non-cathartic violence. Nichols shows restraint, poise, and a deep empathy for his messed-up and lifelike characters.
"Shotgun Stories" (PG-13) **** (Available on Netflix Instant)