18 February 2009

Shotgun Stories

Written & Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Full credits from IMDb

Shotgun Stories fails as a whole, but it has one redeeming virtue: it’s as an evocative portrait of the hardluck rural South, populated by animalistic archetypes. It falters whenever writer-director Nichols tries to turn those mythic forces into emotional individuals, ripping them from the primal story to which they belong. Almost biblical in its rivalries, the film centers on a family feud within a single family: two sets of half brothers at loggerheads over the legacy left them by their shared-father, recently deceased. One set was born before his conversion to Christ; they sport perfunctory names—“Son,” “Kid” and “Boy”—and boast a bitter, absent mother. The other set has human names, a loving mother (with lace curtains and an ornate headboard in her bedroom, oo la la) and a small parcel of inherited land.

Despite these differences, the two groups of brothers have something in common beyond a shared patriarchal line—they lead similar lifestyles, at least to this urban Yankee’s eye: both slog through the day to day drudgery called Life in Southeast Arkansas, boxed in by endless fields, strip malls, freight trains, and aortic power lines—ramshackle environs that seem one quick twister away from reverting to a state of nature. Work is fisheries and tractor repair; rides are on the back of a flatbed; food is cheeseburgers and Doritos. Life is largely uneventful, save for the occasional parking lot brawl. The little that happens in Shotgun Stories involves sporadic encounters of escalating violence: fisticuffs beget poisonings beget beatings beget knife-fights beget death. Otherwise, the film is almost French in its steady, largely uneventful portraiture—in its slow-boil violence. Longstanding contentions are set off when Michael Shannon, sporting a Brokeback Ledger mutter and his naturally sharp facial features (which seem to curdle at their termini), publicly denounces his father at the man’s funeral, turning the two fraternal factions into feral animals, stolidly fuming until they happen onto each other, at which point they pounce.

When not expressing itself as violence (mostly off-screen and bloodless), that seething is too quiet; despite the infrequent comic flourishes, Shotgun Stories is exhaustingly somber, takings its tonal cues and steady, rolling pace from the angry faces of the men who fill its frames. (Women appear only fleetingly, usually as external stabilizing forces.) Nichols misfires when he stops the conflict to unnecessarily develop his characters for a tragic but manipulative pay-off: the brother with the tres-90s slacker-hairdo who might marry his girlfriend; the tubby brother who coaches basketball; the alpha brother with the gambling problem and troubled marriage. At root, these are angry, somber-faced men acting as groups, and we’re told all we need to know about them by the conditions of their existence: one lives in a tent in his brother’s backyard; the other in a van (which, alas, is sometimes down by the river.) Their imposed emotional arcs are mere padding, distractions. And, rather than enhance the drama, the softly melodramatic acoustic guitar score (Goo Goo Dolls-y bullshit) merely teases out the absurdity of trying to wriggle emotions out of an emotional void. Shotgun Stories builds to a finale that preaches the futility of vengeance, embracing the notion of family while rejecting its destructive underside: the fallacy of loyalty-expressed-in-violence. It’s another thoroughly Bush-era movie about the futility of vengeance, this one about opposing clans locked in symbiotic destruction, fighting to “right wrongs”. Too bad that it feels way too long, even at a meager 87 minutes. Grade: C+

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