In a recent documentary some interviewees recalled seeing Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it came out in 1973, and being amazed that someone, anyone, could actually make a movie about the type of people they’d grown up with in NYC’s tougher boroughs. Thirty-five years later, of course, the general attitude might well be, “Please God, not another Mean Streets knockoff!”—being that New York City slang-speaking East Coast youth dramas have become one of the reigning cliches of indie cinema.
Many things go in and out of fashion at the movies, but it’s seldom noted that among them are entire geographic and population sectors of American life. Middle-to-upper-class WASPS never seem to go out of style; boys (of whatever race) in the ‘hood are a relatively new prevalent flavor; desperately-seeking twentysomethings in the more glittering cities are a favorite; generic suburbia is a fallback setting for many genre exercises.
But the smaller-town “heartland” America that once held our majority populace—and which has duly been shrinking for many decades, though it ain’t vanished yet—is now seldom seen on screen. Exceptions usually arrive within the context of comic (or horrific) “white trash” caricature. When a more honest portrayal arrives, it seems as exotic as a glimpse of a forgotten aboriginal tribe—to many, at least. (Not to me: I’m a born-and-raised small-town Michigander.) Boys Don’t Cry was one, Soderbergh’s undervalued Bubble another.
Arkansas native Jeff Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories is another, even if his story hinges on a classic revenge scenario that could be applied to any setting. But his characters aren’t boys in the ‘hood, they’re boys in the stark, flat landscape of an economically depressed onetime agribiz hamlet where now most folks are probably just scraping along, working at the nearest Wal-Mart or the local fishery.
That latter is the default employer of two out of three brothers here: Eldest son Hayes (Michael Shannon, an intense actor you might recognize from recent movies like Bug, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Let’s Go to Prison) is a simmering sort separated from his wife, though he spends court-designated time with their only child. Working shirtless in the sweltering summer heat, he exposes shotgun-pellet scars whose history is a source of much secret speculation amongst coworkers. Kid (Barlow Jacobs) is an easygoing, attractive dude who’s weighing settling down with loyal girlfriend Cheryl (Coley Canpany). A third sibling, genial space cadet Boy (Douglas Ligon), lives in a van with his dog—and for the moment at least, seems happy enough that way.
But there’s a big cloud hanging over these close adult brothers: Namely their father, who has just died. He was a violent drunk who eventually redeemed himself, found God, became a respected member of the community, flourished in business ventures—all for his second family, a prim Christian clan discomfortingly located just up the road from the first-marriage sons he abandoned and never bothered reconciling with. (Note the insulting indifference with which he “named” them.) In his absence, they were raised by a “hateful” mother (Natalie Canerday, who makes a memorably unpleasant impression in just a couple scenes) all three are now estranged from. Nonetheless, she shows up on Son’s doorstep to brusquely announce their dad’s demise.
The “discarded” Hayes boys thus show up at dad’s funeral, where the son delivers a “tribute” speech that rips a new one in the expired patriarch’s reputation—to the grief of his (second) widow and the rage of trigger-tempered eldest “Hayes Family 2” son Cleaman (Michael Abbott, Jr.).
Great offense is taken on both sides. Two head-butting rams by nature, Cleaman and son ensure this blood-related interfamilial conflict will progress from payback mischief to murder.
Shotgun Stories was shot widescreen by director of photography Adam Stone (a second-unit photographer on several prior films by David Gordon Green, who is one of the producers here), with music by the excellent Memphis band Lucero. It captures in literary detail a specific place where hardship has created an aggressive man-of-few-words pride that can’t be assuaged by negotiation or platitudes.
Nichols’ tale is tragedy, but hardly a Hatfields-McCoys melodrama (except in nutshell description). It doesn’t lack humor or tenderness, either. It’s not a great movie, but it’s surely a good’un—and a bracing departure from current Amerindie fashion.
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