An astonishingly impressive debut. Shotgun Stories is the 2007 feature film debut of filmmaker Jeff Nichols who would go on to make Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving, all of which feature Michael Shannon in either a starring or supporting role. The direction of Shotgun Stories is strong and assured, feeling like it could be the work of a director with several features under their belt.
The story is simple by design. Three brothers, Son, Kid, and Boy find themselves in a feud with their half-brothers who they’ve grown up hating. Tensions were clearly present between the two families but Son’s actions at their father’s funeral set the two sets of brothers on a path toward active violence. The plot is unabashedly simple and there are two main reasons for this. The first is a reflection of the characters; Son, Kid, and Boy are very simple men. They struggle with money troubles, scrape by with manual labor jobs and a coaching job for a youth basketball team, they work, they go home, they eat, their lives are simple relatively speaking, then in comes the feud, shaking up that simplicity. That’s not to say the characters aren’t complex, quite the opposite. Each of the three brothers is well defined and gets ample development and individual struggles on top of the group’s feud. The other reason for the story’s simplicity I think is to allow a feeling of similarity to stories past. Shotgun Stories and its feud storyline calls to mind a number of westerns and revenge tales and this is no accident. I believe that in many ways Shotgun Stories is a deconstruction on the very idea of revenge and counter-action. The film explores a number of revenge and western tropes and strips away everything cool or cathartic about the violence, anger, and hatred, and adds a hefty dose realism.
The realism of this movie might be its strongest element. The film takes a real-world approach to a familiar western storyline and goes to great lengths to make everything feel as natural as possible. The various shots of the city aren’t just establishing shots like they may be in another film, instead, they serve the purpose of building the setting as a character within the film. The setting of rural Arkansas is an integral part of the film and a line like ‘If I owned this city, I’d sell it.’ Resonates deeply with the viewer and informs the lifestyle of the characters. The sense of place is tangibly strong. The way each location within the film is shot only serves to make it feel more genuine. The film’s budget is very low at only an approximated $250,000 and much of the film was clearly shot on real locations. Some of the lighting, staging, and even cars driving through the background could give off a documentary type feel which of course compounds the realism. The way life is shot calls to mind such films as Smoke (1995) and the works of Richard Linklater.
Michael Shannon is excellent. Michael Shannon is my favorite living actor and his performance in Shotgun Stories is great as usual. He fits the role perfectly and carries the film when some of the other actors don’t quite pull their weight. This is an early leading performance from him. The film came out in 2007 but was primarily shot in 2004. The character work being done here is excellent and smartly leaves a lot to be discovered via subtext throughout the film’s runtime.
Shotgun Stories is a human drama set deep in rural America which subtly deconstructs familiar western tropes.