Sunday, July 3, 2016

Shotgun Stories

Spoiler-free.

' first feature film watches as a long-running feud between two sets of half brothers escalates out of control when their father dies. In the older group there's Son () Boy () and Kid (). They were taught to hate their abusive father and his second family by their bitter mother. But when the father left his first family he cleaned up his act for his second and four other sons, and they mourn him when he dies -- and take it personally when the former three crash the funeral and insult their dead father's memory. And so it begins.

Son, Kid, and Boy. Yep, those are their real names that they really go by.

Set in a rural small town in Arkansas, this movie is full to the brim with the deep south. And that's where Nichols is from, so he must know what it's like. (Arkansas is also where he set my current favorite film of his, Mud.) The culture in this movie is endlessly interesting, and an ideal setting for this drawn out, but tense battle between brothers. And even though the filming quality isn't the best (being his first film it's understandable) that actually adds to the dirty, realistic tone of the film. Like in Mud, the setting is practically a character all by itself.

And this is a character story. It probably didn't have a budget to be anything else, but it seems to purposefully focus on the drama behind the fight rather than try to entertain with violence. The actual violence always seems to be obstructed from our view, yet we get to see every last detail of the emotional aftermath. It's a film that has a lot to say, but in true southern fashion, never really says it outright. Southerners are always thinking way more than they're saying and this film follows that lead to great result. One of my favorite things about Nichols' writing is how well he does natural, minimal exposition. If you wait for it, and pay attention, it'll come out. Most of the time it seems like characters talk about things that really aren't important, (and even when they do they don't explain their thoughts or motivations fully) but somehow the plot, character, motivations and thoughts are all worked into it.
 
Exposition is hard enough when your characters do like to talk. Nichols is a pro.

Acting plays a helpful part, since none of the characters say how they're feeling. Michael Shannon is the only really known actor in the film, but the rest of the cast is quite good, and able to portray their subtle roles every bit as well as they needed to. Of them, Douglas Ligon especially gave an unexpectedly good performance. Shannon is the main lead of the film, and gives a clearly outstanding performance with many ample opportunities to impress. One scene in particular blew me away. I had a complaint, because I was immediately intrigued by the shotgun blast scars on his shoulder, and disappointed that the plot line was concluded with more ambiguity than I wanted. But, that disappointment has now dissolved; it led me to connect some dots on my own, and I discovered a satisfying answer. And I now know that that was Nichols' intent.

I also wondered a little bit at why the ending played out the way it did. It came unexpectedly, which made me think about it, and I eventually reached the conclusion that it was thought through and purposeful, but in some ways it seemed to cut the movie's momentum short, which left then ending feeling slightly non-climactic. It probably works way better if you expect a non-climactic ending which is why I'm mentioning it. If I ever see the film again, (and I expect I will) I will look forward to the ending most, since it nearly lost me the first time. In retrospect, trying to fill in the background, I've discovered some deeper points that I didn't pick up on at first, and would like to confirm my theories. Of course, the fact that this movie left such a firm impression on me to make me think about it in so much depth is sign enough of the story's quality, whether there's more to understand or not.

The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. Proverbs 17:14

That's another great thing Nichols does. No matter how deep he tells a story, you feel that it goes deeper than that. It's just fiction, but it's so realistic that every aspect of the story becomes as if it were real and knowable, even the small details that we never get to know. That's the sort of thing that makes a film like this stick with you. Drawn from real-life truths, told with life-like depth and care, and held up by real performances and a thoughtful script, Shotgun Stories is an immaculate, sincere, and potent tale of violence and strife.

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