Come on, it’s family. Just get along with one another so Christmas can be a whole lot better.
Three close brothers, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) hear the news of their estranged fathers death and decide to go to the funeral, and basically talk a whole bunch of shit on him. Predictably, this causes a lot of ruckus and anger with their step-brothers, which makes things a whole lot more tense for everybody involved.
Two years ago, a little film named Take Shelter, took everybody by surprise and showed us the type of talents that lied within writer/director Jeff Nichols. But, for anybody who was a big-time film nerd and had been keeping this guy on their radar, would know that 4 yours prior, he had another little smash-hit of his with a film that seems to go hand-in-hand with his second one. It’s pretty neat to see what directors debuted with as they are sometimes terribly bad and you can see why they’re called “directorial debuts”, and other times; they have you realize just how damn good these guys really are behind-the-camera. This, is one of those latter cases.
What I liked so much about this flick was how the film had me interested right from the start. Of course it has a slow and deliberate pace that may bother some, but for me, I was intrigued right from the beginning. Right off the bat, I payed attention to every single little thing somebody said because it made me understand all of these characters, what they do, who they are, and what’s their significance in this story we have here. For the first 15 minutes or so, nothing really exciting happens other than just a bunch of people going around and shootin’ the shit with one another, but it’s all very interesting and had me set from the get-go, believe it or not.
A lot of that has to go to not only the direction of Nichols, but his writing as well as it seems like he has that pitch-tone perfect ear for natural dialogue that just doesn’t feel like “movie talk”; it feels like real people talking. But it’s not all about the talking here, because once those first 15 minutes go out of the way, something then changes in the film and there is all of a sudden this time and place where things get very intense, very surprising, and very emotionally-charged. I can’t go into this flick any more without giving certain plot-points away but what I will say is that the places this film takes and goes really do work and will actually surprise you by how dark it is and just by how much it makes you feel. It catches you off-guard, and becomes more than just a movie about a bunch of hicks talking, drinkin’ blue ribbons, and listening to Allman Brothers.
Of course, as you could probably tell, this flick pits one gang of brothers, against the other gang and that may come off as a very obvious and conventional piece of story-telling, but the way Nichols handles it is anything but. Instead of making us realize who’s right and who’s wrong in the situation these guys find themselves in, Nichols shows how both sides of the equation are both kind of dicks and don’t really use their head when it comes to making decisions. They just use the idea of revenge and it gets them all wrapped-up and hell bent out of shape, until one dumb thing happens after another, and then everything just spirals out of control until there’s nothing left to gain revenge about or for. It’s just a bunch of sad and lonely dudes who can’t help but feel the need like they need to sucker somebody next. Nichols shows this in the most perfect way possible and it’s true sign of what this guy can do with a rather-conventional plot, and still make it as insightful and surprising as any other story.
Now, where I do think that Nichols messed himself up a bit in was how a lot of this material is a bit too subtle for it’s own good. Everything in this flick is pretty much understood from start-to-finish with barely any moments of confusion whatsoever, but there’s just way too many scenes and snap-shots of people standing around, drinking, sitting, hangin’ out, and staring into space without really uttering any words. I get that this gives us the essence of what real life is exactly like, but it never seems to go anywhere and could have maybe benefited from some more talking or just a total cut of all those scenes in general. Then again, I can’t really say that there are really any unnecessary scenes in this film at all, so maybe the cut wouldn’t have done it any good.
Most people will probably be surprised to see how there is absolutely no familiar faces in this film whatsoever, that is, unless you’re not going to count the man, the myth, the legend, aka Michael Shannon in the lead role as Son. No seriously, his name is Son. I guess big daddy couldn’t find time in his day for originality. Anyway, back to the man, the myth, the legend: Michael Shannon. As most of us know by now, Shannon is the master at playing it subtle but can bring out the scariest and most painful reactions from anybody, just by a twitch of his crazy-eyes. The guy looks like a loon, but there’s something very genuine and comforting about him that makes us stand behind his character as the more reasonable brother of the three. There’s something about Shannon that has us love this character right from the start, even though there is a huge pound of mystery surrounding him throughout the whole story, we still like him and trust him to do the right thing in the end. We hear some strange things come up into conversation about him from other characters and whatnot, but never anything to the point of where we feel like he’s a complete psycho. He’s just a dude that just so happens to have done some bad shite in his life. Haven’t we all?
There’s a whole slew of other characters in this film that do some great jobs, and I was surprised since I haven’t seen any of these people, show up in anything else. That surprises me too, considering just about everybody does an excellent job with everything they’re given. Except, there are a couple of side performances here and there that show up and seem a bit poorly-acted depending on who’s delivering the lines and all that. But like the scenes of people staring-out into the fields, it didn’t get to my head too much when the dialogue was as natural and interesting as it was here.
Consensus: It may follow a conventional plot line, but Shotgun Stories is anything but that in terms of everything else. The writing and direction from Nichols is superb without ever being showy, and the somewhat unknown cast all do excellent jobs with their roles, that seem to add on extra layers to a story that could have easily been played off as your run-of-the-mill, revenge story taking place in rural Arkansas.
8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!