Kim_Cardassian’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You started this.”
“This started a long time ago.”
Taken out of context, the title to this film probably puts in mind some kind of low-budget, schlocky action claptrap, more in line with Kevin Smith's Red State than the early works of David Gordon Green (two directors pot arguably ruined). In actuality, though, the film is nothing of the kind. Shotgun Stories is a slow-burn drama full of old resentments boiling over, where blood runs thicker than anything and the battle lines were drawn decades ago.
Set in a 'dead-ass town' in south-east Arkansas, the film has to do with two sets of Hayes brothers. The first set were abandoned by their father in favor of raising the second set, thus leaving the first set in the hands of a hateful and spiteful mother. This all spills over when the father dies, and the eldest brother of the first set - Son - delivers a withering commentary on his father's failings, and spits on the grave.
This stirs up trouble, because while the Hayes father may have not cared about his first set of sons at all - to the point where he literally named them "Son" "Kid" and "Boy" - he apparently doted on his second batch, his death leaving them appropriately grief-stricken. Son's disrespect sparks a war of the brothers, one that escalates in ways both unexpected and unavoidable.
So it's a modern day Greek tragedy, set in the American South. But it doesn't feel like a fable; throughout the whole movie, there is a sense of remarkable authenticity. A huge part of this is the subtly breathtaking cinematography and the pitch-perfect sound design, both of which do wonders to bring the space which these characters occupy to life.
But it's really to do with the characters who occupy that space. Michael Shannon began his decade-long collaboration with Jeff Nichols here, and we see that Nichols understood from the beginning just what makes Shannon so magnetic to the eye. He plays a character who used to be able to “divide up the four decimal points in my head,” before he settled into his midlife rut. In his mind, he’s fallen on hard times, so much so that he can't provide for his wife. He’s not happy about this, so he gambles, and in doing so ends up driving her away.
He's a proud man, one who has trouble letting go. It's why he insisted on going to the funeral, even though he knew he and his kin wouldn't be welcomed. The film leaves open the question of whether or not he knew, or guessed, the spiral of violence that his speech would entail. All we do know is that, one way or another, he had to give it.
This is a film comprised of small details. Shannon’s got welts on his back, apparently from a shotgun blast. At the fish farm where he works, the others place bets on how he got them. His brother spends most of the movie living in a pup tents in Shannon's backyard. We see margaritas mixed in blenders hooked up to car batteries.
The worst thing you can say about this film is that it isn't as perfect as Take Shelter. Then again, few things are. Still, as far as feature debuts go, this one is up there with Duel in terms of how it immediately signals a new genius at work. Since this film, Jeff Nichols has been quietly amassing one of the most impressive resumes of any director to ever live. Fitting, for a movie about hopeful new beginnings, and fears about the next generation.
“This one empty ass town. It’s like we own it.”
“If I owned this town, I’d sell it.”
“We don’t own the square root of shit.”