Leading up to the wide release of Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, Vague Visages’ Dylan Moses Griffin will be looking back at each of the director’s previous features, and naturally, he’s starting with Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ striking debut.
In 2011, I watched a trailer for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and was immediately intrigued. Looking into IMDB to see if there was any preparatory viewing, I found his debut film from 2007, Shotgun Stories, and rented it through Netflix. The feeling was similar to watching a young athlete do something spectacular, a feeling that they are going to leave a mark on our world. Instinctively, I felt that I was watching a filmmaker who was going to be one of our greatest, and one whose career I would follow intently my whole life.
Shotgun Stories centers itself around two groups of brothers from the same father in southern Arkansas. One set of the Hayes brothers is Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon), and the father they knew was a violent, drunken man who abandoned them all. He fathered a new family as a sober, religious man (with sons that loved him), but when he dies, Son and company crash the funeral to let everybody know that he wasn’t a good man. This sparks a spiral of revenge between each family that seems to have no end.
With his debut, Nichols immediately jumped to the forefront of the New Americana movement, which is something I brought up a few months ago, describing it roughly as independent American films from this century that authentically examine the harsh everyday realities of trying to live in the modern USA. It’s fitting that David Gordon Green produced Shotgun Stories, as he established himself as a sort of father figure of the New Americana movement with films like George Washington and All the Real Girls.
One of Nichols’ greatest strengths as a storyteller is the authenticity in how he depicts working class and lower class characters. This is something that he’s only gotten better at with each film — never losing this independent touch with the growth in scale and budget — but he still proved to have a strikingly confident control here in Shotgun Stories. Son has a gambling problem that he tries to explain away as card counting, and he recounts his frustrations to Boy that his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) — who has taken their son Carter to stay with her mother — wants him to “stop screwing around, bring home the paycheck, be happy making 20 grand a year.”
Son works at a fish farm with Kid doing backbreaking work for minimum wage. Kid is content with his life; he has no problem with sleeping in a tent outside each night and has a good relationship with his girlfriend, the pretty Cheryl, that may be growing towards marriage. Boy coaches a few elementary school kids in basketball. Kid asks for various opinions on the game, which results in the important question: “Best ballplayer to ever act in a movie that wasn’t about sports?” Boy lists the candidates: Wilt Chamberlain in Conan the Destroyer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, and he thinks Charles Barkley did a voice in Fivel Goes West. There are nods to the scars (both physical and emotional) that their father left them, as Son’s back has numerous buckshot marks, and characters will periodically posit wild theories about how he got them. There’s just all these small details and moments that Nichols subtly includes to build these characters and this world so naturally.
Their relationship with their mother doesn’t seem much better. Son refers to her at the funeral as “a hateful woman,” and every interaction between herself and them is short-versed and to the point, tension billowing beneath each word. Later Son tells her, “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do, and now it’s come to this.” Nichols pauses after Son leaves the exchange, as the mother holds back some tears and continues with her gardening. There’s also a great side character named Shampoo who lives in his car after his presumed drug operation house catches fire, leaving him with one eye for the time being. He provides a sort of comic relief in the film without ever feeling shoved in, his presence just adding to the authentic feeling of time and place.
Shotgun Stories also marks the still ongoing collaboration between Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, one of the best director-actor combos around, right up there with Scorsese-DiCaprio and Reichardt-Williams. The two are meant for each other almost like star-crossed lovers, bringing out the best in the other’s talents. Shannon would go on to deliver the best work of his stellar career in Nichols’ Take Shelter, but he’s as great as ever in their first outing, his steely and weathered demeanor conveying the exact type of person that Nichols needs for these stories. There’s a wealth of emotion that Shannon’s just hiding beneath the surface in each scene, a performance that reveals itself a little bit more with each viewing.
There’s an interesting dissection on the relationship between masculinity and aggression in Shotgun Stories. Nichols highlights masculinity as a theme in all his films, but it’s at its most potent here. There’s an undercurrent of southern pride that’s internalized into these characters, driving the spiral of tragedy and violence. Kid chastises Boy at one point for not joining in a fistfight and backing them up. Son dictates that they aren’t going to escalate things further, but he pressures Boy by finishing with “But that’s the last time you ever stay out of a fight.” This sort of pressure boils on Boy into an almost horrifically violent act in the final third of the film, as he feels an obligation to take things a step further after tragedy strikes.
While the film centers on Son and his brothers, Nichols still gives plenty of focus to the other Hayes clan and the men who lead it. Mark (Travis Smith) and Cleaman (Michael Abbott Jr.) are the two oldest brothers, having divided views on whether or not to get “revenge” for Son and his brothers crashing the funeral, but they are still united in their brotherhood. Cleaman cautions against escalation, but Mark seeks any chance to do just that. The unique thing about the set of brothers is that each has their peacekeepers and aggressors, but once something happens to one of their own, all bets are off. It’s this dichotomy of masculinity where their obligation to match violence with more violence is something that binds each set of brothers together while tearing them apart.
The score revolves around a string orchestration and/or acoustic guitar rendition of the three core notes of the song “Hold Me Close” by Lucero, whose frontman is Ben Nichols, the brother of Jeff. It’s incredibly fitting that the song plays out in full over the final images and closing credits, representing a sonic representation of the catharsis reached by these characters. Nichols shoots the landscape with great authenticity and affection in the naturalism and stillness that defines his work with cinematographer Adam Stone. The rigidness in the framing seems to signify that the tragedy and violence is unstoppable, that this circle of revenge is meant to be. Stone and Nichols also use similar framing in shots featuring each set of brothers, insinuating both the familial connection between them, but also the guilt for pushing this cycle of revenge forward.
I’ve tried to get pretty much anybody that will listen to watch Shotgun Stories, and one of my friends had a great piece of insight about the film, remarking that he felt all of it was something that he could read about it in the news. It’s such a remark that captures the essence of Nichols’ films. He’s able to expertly tap into the settings of both middle and lower class conditions, and it all began seamlessly with Shotgun Stories, a film that immediately marked him as one of the best working American filmmakers.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.