**½/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B
starring Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday
written and directed by Jeff Nichols
by Walter Chaw I'm sick of the kind of exceptional that Shotgun Stories represents--sick enough that I wonder if it doesn't actually reflect a certain faddism attending the creation of the picture. How many times is it seemly to invoke Faulkner before the prestige of it sours into eye-rolling familiarity? To call Shotgun Stories an American classic ignores that it's a tonal clone of David Gordon Green's idylls, which themselves owe their cadences to Terrence Malick's true American classics (which themselves owe a tremendous debt to Charles Laughton's singular Night of the Hunter). That's just the cinematic legacy. At the end of all that impeccable menace, that twisted Grant Wood Americana and surreal, gravid Norman Rockwellian perversity, is this post-millennial, post-9/11 moral that revenge is strange and bitter fruit. As it goes, it's not much; and as the novelty of it's faded like the cheap denim spent in the telling of it, the only thing left is this faint after-image of better, more pioneering films in the genre. Like so much that begins as alternative fare, Shotgun Stories ends up the normative mean to which prestige indies inevitably tend. There's a lot to admire about this film, I just feel like I've seen it about a dozen times by now.
Son (Michael Shannon, a sleepy-eyed revelation) spits on his daddy's grave at an Arkansas funeral attended by his half-brothers, sired after pa rejected sin and became a God-fearing man. This doesn't sit well with Son's semi-kin, of course, and soon they commence a-feudin' with Son and his two brothers, Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Tensions simmer, violence escalates, and all of it's inevitable in that taciturn, deliberately-paced way familiar to admirers of Gus Van Sant's trances (themselves already empty, flaccid self-parody by the time of Paranoid Park). Which is not to say that Shotgun Stories doesn't have moments of grace, that it being only a slight variation on a theme as hackneyed as the Sundance indie-dysfunction genre robs it of that moment when Kid sits by himself in the middle of an overgrown outdoor basketball court drawing up plays, or that pregnant crossroads when he decides that it's not in him to kill someone with their children in the backyard playing. Always verging on the highwire of hicksploitation, with brothers sleeping in pup-tent guest rooms and swinging by the homestead to lay into demon mom, the film at least resists the easiest path and is better for leaving the bulk of the carnage to the imagination. It's tempting to call this hyphenate debut of Jeff Nichols (up next, a literal adaptation of a David Gordon Green script) inspired, but it's more accurate to call it "strictured": there's not a single real misstep here, but neither is there a lot I can hang on Nichols alone.
The bloom hasn't come completely off this genre's rose, garnering the picture the kind of festival buzz that used to attend the latest navel-gaze and greasing its release now, through a distribution company called "Liberation," in a modest DVD incarnation sporting a 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that honours the film's lo-fi roots by resisting the urge to enhance it to death. It's filmic and that's a compliment; what it lacks in sharpness it can only gain in authenticity. (Unfortunately, the image has not been flagged for progressive playback, leading to intrusive combing throughout.) The DD 5.1 audio is meanwhile underutilized for something mistakenly (I think) tabbed as an action film. Still, there are a few nice uses of the discrete channels in what's essentially a dialogue-driven piece. Unfortunately, neither subtitles nor closed-captions are provided.
Nichols provides a folksy commentary establishing his native Arkansan roots, explaining along the way how it is that he digs so fine into the peculiarities of the pic's rural rhythms. The yakker is packed with information--little anecdotes that will prove edifying to the fan while resisting for the most part the urge to regurgitate plot and motivation. Stories of how they "crammed all the night shots" into one evening and of how certain principals drove their own Winnebagos to the shoot speak eloquent to the tightness of a no-budget production. An isolated score on another track provides a third viewing option, accompanied in the extras menu by a photo gallery, Shotgun Stories' trailer, and trailers for Take, Girls Rock!, Manufacturing Dissent, Korda Vision, The Gits, and Stephanie Daly.
91 minutes; PG-13; 2.37:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0 (Stereo); DVD-5; Region One; Liberation