Shotgun Stories

Impressive début feature turns the revenge movie format on its head

Fresh off the festival circuit, writer/director Jeff Nichols impresses with feature début Shotgun Stories, an intelligent anti-thriller set in the Arkansas outback.

At the center of the film are the three Hayes brothers, abandoned in childhood by a father who didn’t think enough of them to give them names. Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon) spend their time drinking beer on the porch and fishing in the local creek. 

Following the death of their father (an ex-alcoholic who has since found religion and a new family) they interrupt the funeral and spark off a long-running feud with their half-brothers, who regard the Hayes as brainless hicks.

Everything in Shotgun Stories is languid, especially Nichol’s home state, which he captures in all its slow-burning glory. The film lingers on wide shots of cotton fields and dusty roads, the stunning anamorphic shots of orange skies emphasising the beautiful barrenness of the environment.

The static, desolate location focuses the action on the people themselves ('It’s like we own it,’ comments one character, staring at his empty town) held together by the understated tenderness of family, an institution whose rigidness threatens to tear them apart.

One critic has compared Shotgun Stories to Greek tragedy, and you can see why. The action unfolds at a  cumulative pace, reflective of Aristotle's dramatic minimalism.

The dead father, never present, hangs like a ghost over everything. Family binds the brothers together, but the reality of their upbringing threatens self-destruction. ‘You taught us to hate those boys, and now we do,’ Son accuses their mother, who emerges and fades in the evening darkness, like a talking abstraction. 

Son’s bare back is peppered with unexplained gunshot wounds, the scars underscoring the impossibility of escaping the past. Workmates take bets on the cause of the scars, but no explanation is offered.
A similar silence dominates the film. Nichols's confidence shows in his willingness to suggest rather than show, a rare trait in a first-time director. Apart from allowing the film to get on with the important business of character development and mood, the lack of flashbacks and exposition make the vague powers behind the action more powerful by their absence. 

Nichols displays a remarkable patience, trusting his characters and cinematographer to do the real work. The audience is incrementally seduced into the reality of the Hayes brothers' world, its muscular authenticity leaving Arkansas lingering in this reviewer’s head many days after the screening.

The film’s central moral question, a debate of the power of free will over the blind forces of family and fate, is thankfully never lost in the action. 

As the feud between the half-brothers escalates, revenge becomes a tempting way to exercise control. At various points the brothers express their determination to ‘end this’. But the film never indulges any audience desire for bloody revenege. 

Nichols rejects any glamorised presentation of cathartic violence. Revenge acts are filmed in clumsy terms, rendered petty and reactionary. 'Why is this happening?’ pleads one character. Nichols refuses to answer.

Finally, the ending is an uneasy compromise between that which the brothers can control and that which they can’t, a perceptive conclusion to a maturely judged film. The film’s title is eye-catching, but it’s a brash moniker that belongs to a different feature. Nichols resists the empty spectacle it suggests, and his film is all the better for it. 

Conor Smyth

Shotgun Stories plays at Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast, from Friday June 20. Click here for full QFT listings.