The first of director Jeff Nichols’s three films (2011’s Take Shelter and 2013’s Mud are also modern classics) and easily one of my favorites of the last decade, Shotgun Stories deals with a feud between two sets of half-brothers in Arkansas after the death of their father. Nichols is not afraid to undercut convention, and his debut is spare and haunted and goddamn perfect.
Here are just a few reasons why I love it so much:
1. Michael Shannon. I don’t need to tell you that Michael Shannon’s the best out there, right? Say you were back in the ‘70s and say you were keyed into the work that actors like Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman and Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were doing right from the start. That’s how you should feel about Shannon if you’ve been with him all along. He steals even the mediocre films he’s in. Think of Sam Mendes’s train wreck version of one of my favorite novels, Revolutionary Road—Shannon is the only thing alive in that mess and he’s more than alive, he’s strutting, he’s arrogant in his greatness, he’s punching at the stars. He inhabits roles, breaks them down and lives in them, infusing them with a world-weariness that strikes hard. As Son Hayes in Shotgun Stories, he’s whisper-tough, scraggly, and tender. Here he is crashing his father’s funeral:
2. Nichols, as the director, is the one who gets and deserves a lot of the praise here, but I can’t help feeling like David Gordon Green, who produced Shotgun Stories, is responsible for shaping the vision of the film. The spirit of Green’s own debut masterpiece, George Washington (2000), pervades Shotgun Stories: It’s the same kind of quiet and transcendent film, as if ‘70s-era Malick tripped into the new rough south and pointed his camera in wonder. Shotgun Stories isn’t strange in the way George Washington is, but it relies on the same sort of whispery tension (and dark humor). It’s never easy, never run off the rails by slickness or convention.
3. The confrontations between the brothers are unpredictable in a way I very much associate with ‘70s crime films. I hope other young filmmakers take a page from Nichols, who is a master at sustaining tension and tone in hushed and brutally realistic scenes. The violence in this film is earned. So is the very threat of violence.
4. Like George Washington, Shotgun Stories gives us a south that is neither Hollywood’s twisted vision of the south nor the cartoonish redneck hell of much contemporary noir. This is the rough and real south, where people fight to get by, people who have lost a father or found a father, people who struggle to come to terms with what Faulkner called “the old fierce pull of blood.” In the end, this is a film about what we make or don’t make of chances we’re given. It’s about moving on, about learning to live well and truly in the world once blood has been spilled or is on our hands or has pooled at our feet. It’s a film that would serve us well to watch and rewatch, as we struggle against each other now and forever.
Shotgun Stories is streaming on Netflix. Here's the trailer:
One other thing:
Jeff Nichols is the brother of Lucero’s Ben Nichols. Here’s a great Lucero song that’s featured in the film:
Bill Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY and lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, Salon, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, Out of the Gutter, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet