Shotgun Stories


USA | 2007 | Directed by Jeff Nichols

Logline: Three grown brothers bring a years-long hatred against four half-brothers to boiling point after they make an unannounced appearance at the funeral of their father’s.

Simmering like a Southern stew, the violence seething under the surface, with the rich characterisation of a Scorsese gangster flick, this dark rustic tale of a blood feud between two sets of half-brothers in the state of Arkansas is a modern American classic that has echoes of the tranquil beauty of Terrence Malick’s Badlands and the ominous intensity of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Michael Shannon commands the screen with a brooding intensity, and you can't take your eyes off of him, just as a young Sean Penn and Martin Sheen did in their early careers. This was the movie where I first really noticed Shannon, then I saw William Friedkin's Bug (released the previous year) and he immediately became one of my new favourite actors.

Jeff Nichols’ screenplay unfolds with the grace and careful pacing of a novel, yet he imbues the film with a visual punctuation that reflects the landscape; the cotton fields and dusty backroads, the straw sun setting, and those lazy porch afternoons suppin’ cold beer and watching the world go by. Curiously, despite its sensationalist title, a shotgun is only ever fired once.

The Hayes brothers, Son (Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), weren’t even given proper names by their loser father. Their young mother hated them for the dog-eared card life dealt her. The four half-brothers were given normal names and had the privilege of working the land, while Son works at a fishery, Boy lives out of his decrepit van, and Kid has a tent pitched in Son’s backyard.

Son has a wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) and son, and it becomes apparent that it is the children of these brothers than might be the saving grace, preventing the brothers from systematically killing each other over a hatred that should’ve been buried many years earlier. But old habits die hard. Annie provides a peripheral dramatic edge of reason and anxiety, while Cleaman Hayes (Michael Abbot Jr.), the sombre second eldest half-brother, and Boy, put the reasoning into precarious practice.

Nichols doesn’t opt for any showpony directorial flourishes with the visual narrative, instead concentrating on eliciting brilliant performances from his mostly unknown cast. The soundtrack is suitably mellow, fitting snugly, and yet providing a resonant contrast to the slow-burn thriller elements. These "stories" reflect the ironies of love, hatred, retribution and resignation. It's a masterful debut.