In Charles Burnett’s family drama To Sleep With Anger (1990), Harry, an old friend from the South, visits an African-American family in South Central Los Angeles and manages to wreak havoc in the process. At one point Harry disputes the fact that Hattie, a former prostitute who has found religion, is now a different person. Shotgun Stories (2007), the stunning debut feature by Jeff Nichols about a family feud involving two different sets of half-brothers who have the same father, would seem to side with Harry by challenging the notion of personal transformation or the religious belief in redemption. Despite the fact that their father has managed to turn over a new leaf, he’s left behind a smoldering cauldron of hatred, as embodied by Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) whose scars on his back suggest the permanence of deep psychic wounds. Shotgun Stories, which was produced by David Gordon Green and Lisa Muskat, nominated for the John Cassavetes Award, and played at the Wisconsin Film Festival, would seem to rest on the biblical premise that human actions have consequences.
Shotgun Stories begins with Son Hayes sitting in a semi-vacated bedroom in the scruffy landscape of rural southeast Arkansas. His two brothers – Kid (Barlow Jacobs) camps in a tent in the backyard, while Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives out of his truck – are dirt poor. As Son laments one evening as they hang out together in town, “We don’t own the square root of shit.” When Son, an inveterate gambler, announces to Kid that his wife Annie has left him, Kid welcomes the opportunity to move into the house. Their mom turns up one evening with news about their father’s death. At Son’s instigation, the three brothers interrupt the outdoor funeral service. Son tells the assembled second family, “This is the same man that ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman. He made like we were never born. That’s who this man was, and that’s what he’s answering for today.” He then spits on his casket, setting in motion the ensuing family feud.
Referring to her born-again husband, the second wife tells her son, Cleaman (Michael Abbot Jr.), “He was a different man back then,” but her other son, Mark, comments about Son and his two brothers, “Those three are like a pack of dogs. You can’t expect a dog to have manners,” suggesting the class difference that contributes to their enmity. Cleaman indicates that he has two kids, and that his other brothers – Stephen and John – don’t need to be mixed up in this. Son also has a young son, Carter; Kid has a girlfriend, Cheryl, whom he plans to marry; Boy serves as a basketball coach to young kids, even if the court sits plunk in the midst of a vast open field. One of his players innocently asks Boy, “Did you know that someone wrote ‘suck it’ on the back of your van?”
In Michael Shannon’s compelling yet understated portrayal of Son, he’s a walking time bomb – animosity seems to flow through his veins, inflect his slow gait, and impede his capacity for speech. Son’s co-workers at the fish farm where he’s employed speculate on the shotgun scars that cover his back. There are rumors that they result from robbing a liquor store or messing with someone’s wife. The conversations in Shotgun Stories are for the most part composed of long silences and small talk, with Arkansas basketball and basketball trivia as favorite topics. Son and Kid later discuss love and faithfulness in a scene that seems right out of a film by David Gordon Green, whose influence on other young filmmakers has become markedly evident lately. Son’s advice to Kid – to find a woman you love and love her – might carry more weight if Son wasn’t already separated from his wife.
Shampoo, a local drug dealer who wants to park his car on their property, is very much like Harry in To Sleep With Anger in the sense that he exploits the inherent tensions of the situation. He stokes the flames of resentment by suggesting to Son that Mark plans to kick their butts. When the brothers meet in town, there’s a confrontation in which Son punches Mark, causing a major ruckus that Boy tactfully avoids. Son later tells him, “That’s the last time you stay out of a fight.” Cleaman attempts to make peace. Son merely responds, “I don’t like you. I don’t like your family.” He threatens to retaliate if anything happens to his brothers.
Boy’s dog dies of a snakebite, but Kid learns from Shampoo that Mark was behind it. He grabs a wooden stick, tracks down Mark, and brutally beats him. We see a knife being flashed, and John and Stephen rushing to aid their brother. Both Mark and Kid end up dead. Once again, Shampoo relays the news that Stephen and John were actually involved. Son tells Boy, “They can take our daddy, good riddance, but they’re not going to take Kid.” The feud escalates from there.
Shotgun Stories is very much a male story. The women merely stand by helplessly, unable to prevent the endless cycle of revenge. Cheryl asks, “Why is this happening?”At least Annie has the good sense to flee. When a person literally has nothing, hatred and an appetite for revenge can easily serve as one’s identity. That’s the case with Son, who places the blame squarely on his mother. In a wide shot, he tells her, “You raised us to hate those boys and we do. And now it’s come to this.” There’s no love or loyalty there, just a residue of inherited anger and hatred that will no doubt be passed on to Son’s own boy, Carter.
Despite its concern with violence and revenge, the film provides an even greater emphasis on the everyday. Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock, uses an anamorphic lens and the larger aspect ratio to capture the desolation of southeast Arkansas – its endless cotton fields, dirt roads, ramshackle houses, and empty main streets. Adam Stone’s striking cinematography leaves an indelible impression of this unforgiving landscape, creating a tight nexus between character and place. This has always been both the strength and rationale of a regionally based independent cinema, which Shotgun Stories so masterfully epitomizes.