Lean and sentient, Shotgun Stories is the sort of film that outstrips its premise within five minutes. Which is a relief: The prospect of two sets of dueling Arkansas half-brothers did not initially enthuse, regardless of the excellent David Gordon Green’s co-producer credit. I foresaw sword fights, perhaps even literally.
But from the first few shots of water pooling at the edge of a small town, it is clear that writer/director Jeff Nichols shares Green’s fascination with the interplay between nature and small towns—the way that modernity hampers nature; the capacity of nature to put human folly into immediate perspective. It is also clear, from the first few scenes between the grown wildchildren of a recovered alcoholic’s first, long-forgotten first marriage, that Nichols distills where Green sprawls. (I think both approaches work.) Some have taken issue with these characters’ names — Kid, Son, and Boy — but they certainly make their point with the same laconic ivory that is this film's trademark. These are men so unparented that they were never properly named, although the children of their father’s second marriage were. We discover this at their father’s funeral, where the boys from the second marriage mourn properly clad in suits and ties, and which Kid, Son, and Boy crash in tee shirts adorned by massive chips on the shoulders. They express their anger so succinctly and so violently that it ignites the long-dormant tensions between the two clans.
All dialogue between these broken men is so understated that it might as well be a form of Morse Code that would reveal both long-brewed jokes and a yawning, ancient sorrow if you could unpack it. And you want to. For this is a film that picks up where others might leave off, about what happens to the people who managed to survive terrible childhoods from which they were not rescued. More to the point, this is a film that you can trust. It never oversteps the plausibility of its characters, never mugs for a cheap laugh, and it never bombards you with an intrusive soundtrack or unnecessary violence or exposition even as the tension rachets up. And though a climax is achieved, it transpires so, well, naturally that the film ends much like it begins, softly. Shotgun Stories has the effect of a concerto rather than a piece of contemporary cinema.
Nichols shares a reserve with his characters though he is bright-eyed where they are living ghosts. It says it all that he brought his dad to the festival as his wife could not come. He comes from a loving family, he acknowledges, that is so supportive that it made sense to make this film in his native Arkansas. It’s such a close family, in fact, that it is the love he feels for his brothers that helped fuel the script. He says he wrote it with the wide-ranging Michael Shannon (Kid, the oldest of the brothers) in mind based on a film school professor’s recommendation, and that Shannon agreed to work with him based on that script. As for the characters’ names, he admitted a predilection for Coppola’s The Outsiders (one of the few movies Nichols owns), whose three central brothers are Sodapop, Ponyboy, and Dallas. Names from people who couldn’t quite fancy themelves parents, either.
After the screening, I commended Nichols for his restraint, especially in a first feature. He explained how, unlike Green, he scripted everything in the film, except for a few (really funny) exchanges between Boy and some basketball players he coached. He also explained why we never learn what riddled Kid’s back with shotgun holes. “I had a scene that explained it,” Nichols explained. “But it just felt forced, so I had to take it out.”