A man sits on his bed in the half-light, shirtless. On his back is a series of little bumps, perhaps scars, possibly cigarette burns, or buckshot wounds? His co-workers at the fish hatchery take secret bets as to their origin. But for Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), they are part of a hurtful past, one that he is forever trying to get beyond. Son's name, as well as those of his brothers, Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon), no doubt came from their awful father, a kind of branding that they can never escape. We never meet this father. He dies at the beginning of Shotgun Stories. Son, Kid and Boy attend his funeral, and that's when the trouble starts. If not for that, life in this Arkansas small town probably would have gone on as always, with Kid sleeping in a tent in Son's backyard, with Boy living out of his van, and with the three of them getting together for beers. (There is a lot of beer drinking in this movie.)
The absent father apparently left behind his first family, along with the boys' nasty, withdrawn mother, sobered up, found Christianity, married again and started a new family with four new boys (each with proper names). When Son talks about his father, the father he knew, at the funeral, one of the other sons vows revenge. This leads to the death of Son's dog, and then to a series of threats and a few shoving fights, then to one lethal fight that ends with more than one death. Finally, things get to the shotgun phase. Oddly, shotguns are nowhere to be seen until the film's climax, though characters seem to know a great deal about them; one local loser, called Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins), with bandages wrapped around his head, explains details like the plug inserted into the chamber which limits the number of shells one can load.
Written and directed by newcomer Jeff Nichols, the film thankfully does not spend its every waking second building up to and executing the feud. It's clear that no one wants the feud, but there's an anger here that can't be denied. Perhaps it's because of this wretched little town, stuck somewhere between progress and stagnation. Son dreams of using his long-lost math skills to make some extra money gambling, a notion that his wife (Glenda Pannell) is none too pleased with. She announces that she is staying with her mother until Son grows up, which gives him leave to invite his brothers to stay in the house. Nichols shows plenty of moments of the boys doing nothing, fiddling with television sets, air conditioners and stereos, drinking coffee or beer, eating cheeseburgers, sleeping, etc. Life moves very slowly here, and there's rarely any sense of urgency. Even the basketball team that Boy coaches doesn't seem ready for any real competition.
Nichols may have been inspired by the work of his producer, David Gordon Green (whose fourth film, Snow Angels, is currently playing). Green understands more than most contemporary filmmakers that establishing a certain rhythm, a mood and a place can be just as effective as moving the story forward. But Nichols doesn't seem as confident as Green. Green includes entire "throwaway" shots of nothing in particular in his films, as the master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu used to do, which give a natural pause, as if the film were taking a breath between sentences. But Nichols only uses his mood shots to lead up to character or story enhancement. A quiet scene on the front lawn leads to some intense conversation. Random shots of farmers working the land only foreshadow the fact that the second Hayes family runs a farm. There's one shot of some flowers, but on that Nichols uses that tired trick of slowly rolling the focus across the background flowers to the foreground flowers, as if impatient.
Still, even if things seem rushed compared to Green's films, Nichols' own tone is quite vivid and gripping. Everything depends on the film's little world, in which gossip and boredom count for as much as anything resembling honor. The use of trucks and other vehicles is quite revealing; several characters live in their vehicles, and others use their cars as part of their attacks and withdrawals. Anytime anyone makes a threat, they first drive up in a car or a truck. Great amounts of beer are consumed, in gulps, to build courage or to make the moments pass faster. But the real key to the film is the commanding Michael Shannon, who was so memorable last year in William Friedkin's Bug. While everyone else in the film seems to have accepted their lot, Son's eyes are constantly thinking, pondering, exploring and wondering. His curse is that he's smart enough to realize exactly how and why his life turned out, but can't quite figure out how to change anything. Fortunately for him and for all those who love him, by the end of the film he takes a baby step in the right direction.Please also see James Rocchi's SF IndieFest review.