Friday, May 09, 2008

Shotgun Stories / **** (PG-13)

Son Hayes: Michael Shannon
Boy Hayes: Douglas Ligon
Kid Hayes: Barlow Jacobs
Shampoo: G. Alan Wilkins
Nicole: Natalie Canerday
Annie Hayes: Glenda Pannell
Stephen Hayes: Lynnsee Province
Mark Hayes: Travis Smith
John Hayes: David Rhodes

International Film Circuit presents a film written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, thematic elements, and brief strong language).

A type of film is being made independently in America today that is unique to this country’s psyche. Like that most American of genres, the Western, these films are often about survival. They capture the essence of small town life in America, depicting a kind of blue collar squalor that is generally found in the Midwest and deep South. They depict simple people, but not simple-minded ones, whose everyday life consists of working a hard trade without much else to live for. They dream of a better life but don’t much expect one. They aren’t necessarily unhappy people, but they are worn down by their place in the world.

A cinematic element that distinguishes these films in look and mood from the standard Hollywood fare is their stark yet beautiful landscapes. The people who make these films have an intimate knowledge of the environments they place their characters in and a special appreciation for their locations that comes out as a sort of love of the land on film. Some recent examples of these films include Joey Lauren Adams’s “Come Early Morning”, Hilary Birmingham’s “Tully”, the documentary by Andrew Douglas “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”, and just about any of the films of David Gordon Green.

Jeff Nichols’s “Shotgun Stories” is another masterpiece in this new mode of independent filmmaking. It tells the story of three brothers. Son (Michael Shannon, “Bug”) is the oldest. His wife has just left to live with her mother because Son can’t quit gambling. Boy (Douglas Ligon) is the middle brother who lives in a van down by the river. He isn’t exactly the bumbling motivational speaking van-dweller that made Chris Farley famous, but he is the slightly overweight funny one of the bunch. Kid (Barlow Jacobs) lives in a tent in Son’s back yard and still retains some of the hopes and dreams his older brothers have come to realize are out of their grasp, but he lacks the maturity to focus his energies toward them.

Nichols must have grown up with brothers of his own, so acutely does he capture the unique relationship shared by male siblings. Never have I seen brothers portrayed so well in a film. They talk to each other about each other in different ways. For example, Kid and his girlfriend have decided to get engaged. She wants Kid to talk to his brothers about it. Nichols only gives us the tail end of his conversation with Boy, where they talk about the difficulties of juggling an affair with multiple lovers. But in his conversation with Son, Kid reveals his genuine fears about the prospect of spending the rest of his life with one person. “I don’t have a truck. I don’t have a house. And a life time is too long for two people,” he says. He isn’t really talking about the difficulties of marriage so much as the difficulties of life that two people must bear together in marriage.

Kid’s fears reflect the world in which all three brothers live. Son works with Kid in a fish hatchery. It is the type of work you grind through daily and then spend your nights forgetting about. The other workers at the hatchery gossip about why Son’s back is scarred by shotgun shot, while Son spends his own time trying to develop a card counting system for the casino. Boy has no apparent job and spends some of his free time coaching a youth basketball team. He has so little ambition in life but agonizes over his coaching strategy from the previous season, seeking out advice from his brothers—who have no discernable knowledge on the sport. They all seem to be just trying to fill their time with anything of substance they can grasp.

Unfortunately, life has a way of presenting problems that can develop uncontrollably. One evening the boys’ mother (Natalie Canerday, “Sling Blade”) shows up with some news. The boys called her “Nicole” with a contempt that suggests they hoped never to see her again. She is no more thrilled to be in their presence but has come to inform them that their father has passed away. For all the coldness of their exchange with their mother, their opinion of their father seems to be far worse. Bad enough that Son feels the need to attend the funeral so he can tell his father’s second family just how awful they all feel the man who abandoned them was.

This action revives a feud between the two sets of half brothers that was dormant during their father’s illness. The boys from the father’s second marriage all have proper names, illustrating Son’s, Boy’s and Kid’s alienation from the happiness his second family was able to attain with him. The oldest of those brothers, like Son, has a family of his own, which factors into his desire to move on from the past. When Kid begins to feed his own fire against their half brothers, Son also begins to worry that the future of their family is too high a cost to risk; but events have already grown beyond their control.

As the feud escalates it becomes easier to understand how the male temperament is conditioned to resort to violence—not just with these particular characters, but with any man. There is a character named Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins), who is just looking for a place to park his car to hide it from the cops. He is present at almost every event that adds to the volatility of the brothers’ feud. Nichols has described this character as the devil. He seems to just be a laid-back observer. He only provides each side with information, yet that information serves to fuel the anger felt by each party. Is this contribution the same service 24-hour news networks like CNN perform in our world?

Although the themes of this movie reflect the times in which we live, it’s in the visceral nature of family and life that this film really strikes its harmonic chords. Nichols gives us shots of dogs sniffing trash in the streets, and he provides an unparalleled look at the bonds of family stirring in these brothers’ hearts. And we can see life that we recognize. Even if you aren’t from the same depressed environment that surrounds these characters, their sparse world only sharpens the focus.

The way these brothers would truly do anything to protect each other reminded me of the only fight I was ever in as a child. Some guy I didn’t know was trash-talking my brother. Listening to him say negative things about my brother really got under my skin, even though this jerk didn’t know who I was, and despite the fact that I wasn’t incredibly fond of my brother at the time. Out of the blue, I attacked him. Perhaps this violence is in us all; but if we can just find away to distract ourselves from the outside forces that provoke such rage, we might be able to live content with what we have.

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