Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories was a film that went entirely under the radar throughout 2008 and built a small but devoted following while playing at film festivals. After hearing enough strong praise for it I decided it was worth a rental. All I’d known about it was that it took place in the south and had to do with a murderous feud between rival families. Between the title and the description I was expecting something a bit closer to Deliverance then what I got, which feels a lot closer to the work of the film’s producer David Gordon Green.
The film is set in a microscopically small southern town and opens with the funeral of a family patriarch. This man had two packs of children from different women, the first he mistreated, the second he doted on. One member of the first pack named Son (Michael Shannon), decides to speak up at this funeral and curses the man who mistreated him and his three full brothers. This sparks a feud between the two packs, which will end in blood.
When would you think such a story would take place? The 1800s? The 20s? Even the 70s? Well it doesn’t take place in any of those eras, it takes place in 2008. But how many people are really going to be starting a blood feud over a few disagreeable words in this day in age? That’s the problem I have with this movie, the people in it make decisions as if they were in a crazy southern gothic exploitation movie, yet Jeff Nichols goes out of his way to ground the film in absolute reality.
From a filmmaking perspective, there is a lot here to be impressed by. I mentioned earlier that David Gordon Green was one of the film’s producers, and if I was told that he was the director I wouldn’t be shocked. First time director Jeff Nichols’ visual style borrows from Green’s work so heavily that it sometimes feels closer to rip-off than influence. Though if you’re going to borrow a style it might as well be from someone as talented as David Gordon Green. The cinematography by Adam Stone is almost as good as Tim Orr’s work in the david Gordon Green cannon, and the film has the same kind of naturalistic calm that David Gordon Green had in The Good Girl and Snow Angels.
But all the artful compositions, restrained violence and minimalistic acting only serve as a means of concealing that this is an exploitation plot in which characters make illogical decisions for two thirds of a movie. As small as this town is I have trouble believing that there wouldn’t be some kind of police force or sheriff trying to stop the idiotic and often deadly feud that is going on. If Nichols had chosen to embrace rather than conceal some of this stories sillier aspects he may have at least had a movie that was true to itself. As it is the movie feels like a fraud, a slow and uninteresting one at that.
** out of four