The summer is over. Not in any astrological sense, of course, but the spirit of the summer has passed. Essentially, playtime’s over. It’s high time to sober up, fly straight, focus on the gritty things, and watch heavy movies. To provide something of a preview for a review, as if that’s necessary, here’s a brief conversation I had with a friend while watching this week’s movie:
Will: I’m going to the bathroom out of abject sadness.
Me: I’ll pause it so you don’t miss anything.
Will: I really don’t want you to do that.
Shotgun Stories (2007)
The Plot: Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) are already skirting along the bottom of the barrel when their mother shows up one night to announce that their father is dead. Old feuds, violence, and confusion erupt after the brothers crash the funeral uninvited, so that Son can deride his father in the presence of the man’s second family, his preferred family.
This is the cinematic debut of writer/director Jeff Nichols, who made the brilliant but soul-crushing Take Shelter, and most recently released Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, which I will be reviewing in a couple weeks. As you may have picked up from the Tuesday Zone’s review of Take Shelter, the numerous times I have mentioned it in previous articles, and the last two paragraphs of this article, Jeff Nichols is two for two in making sad movies. Where Take Shelter is a grim, incredibly intimate, fearful glimpse into the mind of a man who may or may not be going insane, Shotgun Stories somehow keeps its distance. Though the subject matter is private, the conflicts personal, and the grief very real, Nichols holds the viewer back a bit. In most case, this could come as a major criticism, if a writer/director fails to bring the audience in close for an intimate situation, but what Nichols does is quite clever.
Take it like this: if you see that a friend of yours is going through a very tough time, all alone, concerning some deep personal conflicts, assuming you’re a good friend, you try to help him. At the very least, you find out what’s going on, excavate his thoughts and feelings on the subject, and offer consolation. The moment you do that, he is no longer alone, and the problem is no longer exclusively his burden to bear. It’s no longer a private matter.
In a way, things remain more internalized if no one—including the audience—has a clear concept of the character’s inner workings. No one in this movie lays out their emotions or spells anything out in clear terms. You infer based on their actions and the actors’ ability to portray deep inner workings. This is not an entirely original approach from Jeff Nichols. John Ford did it in films like How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath back in the forties and The Searchers in ‘56. This is very difficult to pull off, though, without alienating the audience. It’s not enough to be a great director (which obviously Ford was and Nichols is); the cast needs to be seriously skilled. Ford was working with Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and John Wayne, so he was set, but who did Nichols have? Michael Shannon? What does that mean for this film’s success?
Well, so here’s the thing, the whole cast was great. It was mostly composed of ‘unknowns’ who all did a good job conveying emotion through minimal movements and seemingly arbitrary dialogue. But there’s a problem. The problem with Shotgun Stories is Michael Shannon. How is that a problem? He’s seriously one of the best in the biz right now and probably one of my favorites. I’d happily compare him to Gary Oldman or Michael Fassbender—guys who treat every role like it’s the most important role of their career. There are no small roles. For women you have people like Rachel Weisz and Carey Mulligan and Shannon’s Take Shelter costar Jessica Chastain, who all do the same thing. Great. Why is that an issue? Well, sometimes I worry that Michael Shannon might be too good an actor. Certainly in this case, Shannon is so good he brings the movie down. The other actors are fine, but he makes them look bad. It’s not intentional, that’s just how it happens. I love Michael Shannon, but he can be inadvertently problematic.
The material certainly suits him, though. The whole film (except for the ending) unfolds very much like a Shakespearean tragedy. I probably could have labeled this article as ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare 4’; that’s how close it is. Nichols’ glimpse into the feud of some poor Arkansas families is as insightful and powerful as some of the plays of which it is reminiscent; I was primarily reminded of Titus Andronicus, a feud leading to an inappropriate level of violence and pain, for totally understandable reasons.
Ultimately, Shotgun Stories is a brilliantly made film with excellent performances, and it won’t crush you as mercilessly as Take Shelter. I’m very much looking forward to watching Nichols’ career unfold with Mud and any future projects. He’s an excellent filmmaker with a lot of promise. Tune in… I dunno, in a couple weeks or whatever for my review of Mud. Also, the soundtrack for Shotgun Stories is really good, too.