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August 16, 2016

Shotgun Stories

by Franz Patrick


Shotgun Stories (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Shotgun Stories” has ample opportunities to have turned into a standard revenge-thriller considering the story revolves around a blood feud between two families. Instead, it surprises by abstaining from violent turn of events on a consistent basis and we are the more enthralled as the threat of violence escalates to an inevitable boiling point.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols exercises a level of control that great directors possess. Here, there is a theme involving the futility of vengeance and just about every scene supports what the picture is about rather than what we expect it to be as audiences who have grown accustomed to familiar parabolas and beats of mainstream revenge pictures. It inspires because engaged and patient viewers are likely to feel off-balance from well-timed misdirects.

Images provide specific, beautiful details. It is set in rural Arkansas and so there are numerous shots of wide open spaces where grass whistle and tree branches sway along the wind. But more interesting are the dilapidated buildings, simple houses, and ordinary faces. We get a real sense that we are watching actual people who know only one way to live. Because it captures a specific environment with honesty and care, the lifestyles presented on screen command a certain vibrancy.

The writing offers deep humanity and intelligence. Notice that the three siblings in the center of the picture have no actual names—they are known to us and to each other as Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). We learn their father abandoned them many years ago and started a family with another woman in the same community. But their four children have names. Meanwhile, Son, Boy, and Kid’s mother raised them to hate their father and his new family.

It is interesting that although we experience the story from the perspective of the boys—now men—that have been left behind, the material does an incredible job in getting us to see, often in small and subtle ways, that the two men and two boys with names have lives, too. Both sides share animosity toward one another and they have their own legitimate reasons.

About halfway through the picture, I wondered if the film would have been as effective thematically if we had seen any scene which showed how the unnamed males were raised either by their mother or father, or both. A more standard, less controlled writing would likely have included such a scene—or worse, flashbacks. Refraining from having such scenes is the correct choice because it allows us to wonder and consider but remain focused on the current feud that unfolds.

Every pore of “Shotgun Stories” reeks of realism and that is what makes it compelling. Shannon stands out as the eldest unnamed brother. When those he loves are threatened, take a look in those eyes. You can almost feel the character weighing disparate routes of action and planning the details of his next move. Or maybe those eyes simply reflect our own instincts.

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