Thursday, July 31, 2008

Review: "Shotgun Stories"

As the indie specialty divisions of the major studios continue to face major financial challenges, it's refreshing, indeed comforting, to realize that the America independent movement is not yet dead. While these films don't reach very wide audiences without the help of a strong studio arm to promote and distribute them, they are very much alive and well.

An exemplary recent example of this is Jeff Nichols debut film, Shotgun Stories. A Southern gothic family drama set against a rural backdrop, Shotgun Stories follows two sets of estranged half-brothers, whose hatred boils over into violence after the death of their father.

Providing a center for the film is Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), a quiet gambler whose bitterness at his father's abandonment for another family sets the entire tragic chain of events in motion.

We never meet his father (we are told of his death at the very beginning of the film), but we feel his uncaring attitude towards Son's side of the family just through the impersonal names he gave his children - Son, Boy, and Kid. Years worth of anger and resentment have been bubbling beneath the surface, and you can see it in Son's world weary eyes.

Shannon is quite good as Son, his performance is understated but very effective. It's a finely tuned portrait of a working class roughneck who isn't quite living the life he wants to live, but is stuck spinning his wheels out in the middle of nowhere, working a job beneath his abilities to feed his gambling addiction.

The film suffers from some weak performances, but the amateurish quality of some of the acting almost makes it seem more authentic. Nichols' direction is incredibly naturalistic, juxtaposing the natural beauty around the characters with their own lowly existence, as it is marred by a Hatfield and McCoy-like family feud, fueled by unbridled machismo and a never ending cycle of revenge.

Because of these sometimes awkward performances, it adds a realistic dimension to the proceedings that they might not otherwise have had. You believe that these men are backwoods Southern good-ol-boys, and the seemingly outlandish lengths they go to become instantly believable.

Nichols continually takes the film in surprising directions, flouting convention and refusing to take the easy way out. It paints an engagingly naturalistic portrait of its characters and the lives they lead that manages to be both lyrical and gritty at the same time. Nichols never pushes the characters into unnecessary directions for reasons of furthering the plot or creating false conflict. He just allows them to breathe and his camera to observe the unraveling of humanity at the hands of pride and revenge with a dispassionate eye. Shotgun Stories is a beautifully pared down family drama that may be rough around the edges, but it is a very impressive debut from a new directing talent we'll be hoping to see more of very soon.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

SHOTGUN STORIES; Directed by Jeff Nichols; Stars Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynsee Provence; Rated PG-13 for violence, thematic elements and brief strong language

3 comments:

Daniel G. said...

Yet another shining review that I couldn't fully read. Dang I need to see this one.

Sam Juliano said...

I still have not seen this film, so I can't make a summary judgement, but I will admit it seems to have some fans over at LIC. However, your review brings up some interesting points--for example the idea that the "amateurish acting is more naturalistic." We have seen such films over the years- that work largely as a result of this quality
Nice work.

nick plowman said...

I downloaded this the other day, I will watch it when I get a free minute...