The debut film of Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories (2007) is a genuine American independent film. It was shot outside of the studio system by a young filmmaker who drew from the character and lifestyle of the rural Arkansas settings – as well as his own life growing up in Arkansas – to offer a different way of life than we usually see in films through a movie that moves at its own pace.
The story revolves around three adult brothers–Son, Kid and Boy–in a rural Arkansas “dead-ass town” (in the words of the characters) who hold on to each other because they have no other family to speak of. Their abusive, alcoholic father walked out on them decades before and then, after getting religion and becoming respectable, started a new family with another woman. The former wife, an angry, bitter woman, raised her sons to hate their father and their estranged half-brothers, the boys who enjoy a close bond with their father. Shotgun Stories opens in the wake of the father’s death, which brings the old resentments to the surface and prompts the eldest brother, Son (Michael Shannon), to speak his mind at the family funeral. His public display of contempt stirs the resentments to action and the grudge becomes a family feud that, inevitably, leads to violence.
The themes could play out as classic tragedy by way of the Hatfield and McCoy’s clan war but the film remains modestly focused on the people and their lives. This is not about righteous vengeance (despite the Bible-belt backdrop), but long-simmering anger and resentment spilling out with fatal consequences. “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it’s come to this,” Son confesses to his mother as he continues down the road of revenge, almost helpless to stop himself. Nichols keeps almost all of the violence off screen, suggesting the escalation in discreet shots and loaded images. He’s more interested in the people as they push the conflict to greater levels and then face the physical and emotional consequences of the escalating war.
Shotgun Stories plays on Monday, May 2 on TCM