Shotgun Stories ★★

Watched as part of the February 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Tyler Perkins' master list
#18: Movie featuring death of a parent

2017 movie viewings, #56. Jeff Nichols is one of those filmmakers who I want to like, and who I try to like, but for some reason all three of the films I've seen so far of his have just lacked that indescribable little thing that pushes it to the point where I do like it. In the case of the first two movies of his I saw, 2011's Take Shelter and 2016's Midnight Special, the explanation was actually pretty straightforward; both of these movies were presented to the public as genre flicks (Max-Max-style post-apocalypse in the former case, science-fiction in the latter), but neither were actually that, but rather delicate character studies about the relationships between fathers and sons, but that happened to be lauded by NPR nerds at film festivals as "great genre flicks" because they don't actually understand what makes for a great genre flick.

So for my next viewing, then, I decided to skip the genre pretensions altogether and simply watch one of his films being presented as a straight-up character study about the relationships between fathers and sons; and that led me to his very first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, starring a then-unknown Michael Shannon and shot in Arkansas on a self-produced shoestring budget, landing on a bunch of critics' top-ten lists that year which is what has led to his higher-profile and better-financed movies since. But I don't know, maybe it's just me -- in fact, I'm sure it's just me, given how much praise this has garnered from so many other people -- but I found this be less a Sam-Shepard-like tragedy about the darkly black things that happen among dysfunctional families in the backwoods of rural America when no one is looking, and more like a parody of a Sam-Shepard-like tragedy, featuring characters so poetically stoic and tight-lipped as to come off like an episode of The Simpsons, and whose shoulder-shrugging attitude about every horrible thing that happens to them caused me to laugh more often than I did wince.

And meanwhile, it's all in service of a plot that starts out menacingly great (the death of a patriarch brings into violent conflict the family of drunken mean hillbillies he left in middle-age, and the family of drunken mean hillbillies he sired once joining AA and starting a new life, threatening to erupt into a Hatfield/McCoy-type epic feud among multiple generations of Trump bubbas), but then just peters out into nothingness by the end of act three, bypassing a climax altogether and instead having all the drunken hillbillies in question solve their feud by basically shrugging and saying, "Eh, fuck it, who gives a shit?" Add a few production problems that come with a lot of these kinds of no-budget films (such as that they could only afford to buy one or two plaintive alt-country songs for the soundtrack, and thus repeat them over and over to the point of self-parody), and you're left with a film that tries to say profound things about cycles of violence among uneducated Appalachians who are capable of holding century-long grudges, but that more often than not simply made me roll my eyes and wonder how this could've ever made anyone's top-ten list. Obviously most people who watch it end up liking it a whole lot more than me, so I won't exactly discourage you today from checking it out if you're interested; but this is definitely a case where the buyer should beware.