I was a huge fan of the 2011 movie “Take Shelter”. In fact, it was easily one of my top five favorite movies of the year and it featured two of the very best performances of the year. “Take Shelter” was written and directed by Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols and it was only his second feature film. Since I loved the movie so much, I thought it would be worth it to check out Nichols’ first film “Shotgun Stories”. Boy am I glad that I did. Like “Take Shelter”, “Shotgun Stories” stars Michael Shannon, an actor who is perfect for the type of rural, working class movies that Nichols is drawn to making. It also shows the amazing writing ability of a director who is clearly passionate about his material.
“Shotgun Stories” is set in the small rural town of England, Arkansas. It’s a part of the country that Nichols obviously knows well and that familiarity really shows itself on screen. Michael Shannon plays Son Hayes, a husband, father, and the oldest of three brothers. Son works at a local fish farm with his youngest brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Kid has no house or vehicle and lives in a tent in Son’s backyard. Having her fill of Kid’s presence and of Son’s gambling, his wife Annie (wonderfully played by Glenda Pannell) leaves with their young son and moves in with her mother. While she’s gone, Son has his other brother Boy (Douglas Ligon) temporarily move in to give him a break from living in his van. We quickly are introduced to the three brothers and Nichols does a fantastic job of showing us each of their personalities, shortcomings, and quirks.
One day while the brothers are hanging out at Son’s house, their estranged mother shows up to notify them that their estranged father has died. We learn that when they were young their father left them to be raised by a mother who Son described as “hateful”. Their father remarried and started a new family completely leaving Son, Boy, and Kid behind. The boys crash their father’s graveside funeral service which infuriates their half brothers, especially Mark (Travis Smith), the oldest. Mark swears payback and this sets off a series of encounters, some violent, between the two sets of brothers.
“Shotgun Stories” has a pretty drastic change of tone close to half way into the picture. But where many movies have handled it in a clunky and jarring fashion, Jeff Nichols makes a near flawless transition. During the first part of the film there are some genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments. Nichols’ region-specific dialogue is perfectly done with a clever mix of humor that would work for those completely foreign to the rural Arkansas area or to those who are very familiar with the local nuances that Nichols plays with. The movie generates several understated laughs through the brother’s southern banter and peculiar circumstances. I found it to be quite funny at times.
By the tone changes when we see the friction between the two sets of brothers. Nichols shows us a deep-seated resentment that’s been hidden in the hearts of the brothers, especially Son. “Shotgun Stories” really builds a sense of tension and suspense and as you watch you just expect the pot to boil over at any second. The change in tone feels natural and appropriate and I was completely caught up in Nichols’ cleverly structured story which revolves around Michael Shannon’s performance. While some of the supporting performers aren’t all that good, Shannon is nothing short of brilliant and much like in “Take Shelter”, I was blown away by what he was doing on the screen.
With “Shotgun Stories”, Jeff Nichols shows that with the right skills in writing and filmmaking and with a phenomenal lead actor, you can make a strong movie even with a minuscule budget. This may be a movie that many have missed and some may not have even heard of it. But it, combined with “Take Shelter”, solidifies my position as a bonafide fan of Nichols and Shannon. “Shotgun Stories” is wonderfully written, brilliantly conceived, and cleverly crafted. Is that enough overused adjectives to prove that I really liked this film? You should check it out.