“You raised us to hate them and now we do, and this is where it has gotten us.”
Writer/director Jeff Nichols rightfully came to prominence last year with the deceptively sophisticated Mud (the first major piece of the Matthew McConaughey revival). But before Mud, came Nichol’s quiet, accomplished directorial debut Shotgun Stories. It’s a story of Biblical proportions set in the cotton fields and back-roads of Southeast Arkansas, and it centers on a trio of transient brothers named, quite simply, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Son is the most settled of the bunch – he lives in a (mostly empty) house in the wake of his wife’s recent departure; Kid has been living in a tent in Boy’s backyard; now that Boy’s wife has left, Kid is happy to move into the house, but he is also equally happy to stay in the tent. Kid doesn’t own a car, he doesn’t have an apartment; he just has a pair of boots and a tent; likewise, Boy has his van and his dog and his VHS tapes of old soccer games. There is this distinct feeling of impermanence in the film, like any one of these characters could drift away into the cotton fields at a moment’s notice. They wake up each day, they go get food when they’re hungry, they move into the house when there’s a vacancy, they move back into the tent when the wife comes back, they try to fix a discarded A/C when they find it on the side of the road, they chuck the A/C unit back to the curb when it short circuits the car – these are creatures of present-moment instinct. Water is a recurring image in this film, and it is an apt image – there is a kind of unseen current running through this family: these three brothers follow the flow of where the world takes them in the most uncomplicated, unhurried way. Their lack of material or worldly attachments deeply highlights the force of life that runs through them – namely, their deep love for one another.
And also their rage: the three young men have been raised to foster a multi-generational grudge against a rival family. The movie’s overarching simplicity only serves to illuminate the destructive senselessness of anger that has been handed down from father to son. The antagonism no longer serves a purpose (if it ever did), and it threatens to crush the pulse of life felt so vitally elsewhere in the story. It is to Nichol’s credit that Shotgun Stories moves along so quietly steadily, and then, somewhere along the way, it reaches dramatic heights you never saw coming. The rare film that manages to be as human as it is philosophical, as grounded as it is spiritual, as simple as it is complicated, Shotgun Stories ranks as one of the most auspicious debuts you’re likely to find.