Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, G. Alan Wilkins

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

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“This is the same man that ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman.  He made like we were never born.  That’s who this man was.  And that’s what he’s answering for today.”

Shotgun Stories is the spiraling southern Arkansas saga of two clans of one dead man’s offspring finally letting their hate and jealously for each other consume them.  Its focus is on the first, initial, set of sons, abandoned at a young age by their father to be raised by a vitriolic mother.  These are Son, Boy and Kid, simple tags for a group of children callously disregarded by their father to a grave extent while he started a new life with another woman and another set of sons.

Son (Michael Shannon) lives in a split-level with his on-again, off-again wife Annie and their son.  A gambler by hobby and a fish farmer by trade, Son’s disagreements with his wife over his plans for the future (or lack thereof) forces her to take the child and leave.  In her absence, Son invites co-worker Boy – who lives in a tent in the backyard – to come stay in the house until they come back.  Son also extends the invitation to Kid, a youth basketball coach idling his time trying to install an air conditioner in his van, and the three stay under the same roof for the first time in ages.

Almost fortuitously, news arrives in the form of the boys’ estranged and equal parts despised and despising mother, who informs them quickly and succinctly that their father is dead.  A hasty decision to crash the funeral is made, and among black-tied grievers the dirty shirt and denim-clad Son asks to speak a few words above the nondescript dun-colored coffin.  In his speech he tells them – a horrified mother, two adult sons and two teenage ones – that their father was not who they thought they were, and not a good man.  He concludes with a column of spit he directs at the coffin, spewed forth with the ejecta of hate.

Understandably, a near-fight ensues but the two families leave on uneasy terms after the widow begs for a cessation.

But further into the movie, hostilities become not only desired but almost . . . fated. The incident at the funeral sparks a series of events that lead to inexorable tragedy, but open up a possibility for redemption and understanding.

Shotgun Stories is harsh and austere in its writing, its imagery.   But it cannot be called bleak.  In actuality, it is perhaps the most refreshing and meaningful film to blur the border between independent and mainstream cinema.  It’s a tale of vengeance that produces no real victory, of how decades of hate and hate-spawning can still be undone, and about the unbreakable bond of family; even if that bond is rotten to the core.

Also refreshing is its outlook on right and wrong; the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye mindset.  Son is perhaps the protagonist but he is not a hero; and as the two sets of brothers argue the origin of the generation-old feud he initially preaches peace to Kid and Boy but does not follow his own advice later in the film.  In fact a particularly galling piece of violence nearly undoes everything if not for the benevolence of the film’s wisest brother, Mark (Travis Hayes).

The bond of family can be stifling, acidic, even unbearable; but it’s beyond important.  Son, Kid and Boy hated their father, were raised to hate their father and his ilk that replaced them, but at the core of that anger is simple jealousy.  Such feelings long fermenting are poisonous enough, but when they involve family there is often no antidote.

The characters in Stories‘ “dead-ass town” are effectively white trash, uneducated Southern rednecks and engage in the stereotypes that follow such monikers; but they are as real and believable as any other class study of any race of any place.  The fratricidal vengeance Son, Boy and Kid espouse becomes believable to any person betrayed or wronged by a parent.

The understated but paramount role of Son was written specifically for Shannon in mind, as he was coming off of his terrifying, delirious performance in 2006’s Bug: his first lead role and one he originated on stage. Quite simply there is no actor like Michael Shannon working in film today, nor has there been for the past decade besides, perhaps, the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis and, in recent developments, the talented Ben Foster.

He is a method actor, a chameleon-like true thespian who inhabits each role no matter how small or paltry, and his intense, often brooding characters are somewhat difficult to grasp, to understand, but they stick with you.

Shannon’s acting dogma – equal parts subtlety and furious incandescence –  adds the perfect recipe for Son; a man suddenly thrust into the role of older brother and mentor when he himself often thinks like a child.  His acting ability lends power to an already static supporting cast of talented unknowns.

Stories‘ strengths put it heads above its class of film, and its moral resonance raise it further still.  Arkansas-native Nichols’ debut film; it’s a gripping, distinctly American essay on the power – good and bad – of family, and the shocking depths some will go to stake – or remove – their claim in it.