"Shotgun Stories" is one of the finest films I've seen this year. It's definitely one of the best films from the first half of 2008 and will likely find a spot on my year end list. It's a shame most movie goers aren't even aware of it. "Shotgun Stories" was unable to garner a major distributor, but played on the film festival circuit, and made barely a blip on the radar during its miniscule theatrical run. Hopefully, this gem will find an audience on DVD. "Shotgun Stories" is an astounding debut for writer/director Jeff Nichols and it was produced by David Gordon Green who wrote and directed "Snow Angels." Both films are a part of the recent movement in "new American realism" and both deal with themes of small town life and tragedy.
"Shotgun Stories" centers on a trio of brothers who live in a nowhere town in the middle of Arkansas (Nichols' home state). They were abandoned by their abusive, alcoholic father and left in the care of their mother who is simply described by her eldest son as a "hateful woman." The father never even bothered to give his boys real names, instead they've been dubbed Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs), and Boy (Douglas Ligon). Son is the oldest and most responsible. He's got his a family, a house, and a steady job at a fish farm. However, Son has a gambling problem and his love for the card tables causes his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) to leave with their boy Carter (Cole Hendrixson). Kid lives in a tent in Son's backyard. Kid works with Son on the fish farm and plans to propose to his girlfriend though he has no clue how he'll provide for her. He lives in a tent, after all. Boy is the youngest and like Chris Farley's "Saturday Night Live" character, Matt Foley, he lives in a van down by the river. When we first meet Boy, he's trying to power up an air conditioner through his cigarette lighter.
And what happened to the patriarch of the Hayes family? He eventually cleaned himself up, found Jesus, and started a new family. A new wife and four sons; Cleaman (Michael Abbot Jr.), Mark (Travis Smith), John (David Rhodes), and Stephen (Lynnsee Provence). He never gave Son, Kid, or Boy another thought.
When the father (who we never even meet or see on-screen) passes away, Son leads his brothers to the funeral where he has some choice words about their not-so-dearly departed father. Son's simple act of spitting on the man's casket kicks off a blood feud between the two sets of brothers, one that has been brewing for years. I'll say no more about the story as I'd hate to spoil it for those who haven't seen the film. Suffice to say, lives are lost and changed forever. Yet, Nichols isn't content with wallowing in fatalism. He dots his film with light touches of humor and finds some hope that the never-ending cycle of hate and revenge can be broken.
The descriptions I've given for the Brothers Hayes sound like something out of a bad Jeff Foxworthy routine. Nevertheless, Nichols and his actors infuse the characters with a well-worn humanity. They are flawed characters that are sometimes likeable and sometimes aggravating, just like anybody else you've ever met in your everyday life. What truly brings the characters to life is the dialogue which is some of the best I've ever heard in years. I'm not talking about the stylized monologues of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino. Nichols' lines are terse and succinct. These are manly men who aren't likely to share their feelings or engage in flowery soliloquies.
The performances are uniformly excellent with veteran character actor Michael Shannon as the film's emotional anchor. I enjoyed his work here and in other movies like "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "World Trade Center." Shannon might only be recognized as one of the ‘that guys,' but with only luck his showing in "Shotgun Stories" will help him graduate from supporting roles to male lead.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I was provided only a screener and not the final product. The transfer on my copy isn't as rich as it could have been, but it's clean and suitable.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital Stereo. The 5.1 track was not available on the screener. The Dolby Stereo track wasn't up to par. Other than the score, the sound was muted and the dialogue was hard to make out.
The official DVD release includes an audio commentary track with Jeff Nichols, an isolated music track, the film's theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.
None are present on the screener so I cannot rate them properly.
"Shotgun Stories" is a film that truly deserves a wider audience and should cement Jeff Nichols' status as a filmmaker to pay close attention to. This is Greek tragedy transplanted into the white trash south of America. It proves the independent film industry is still going strong and can produce more than just smug and phony rip-offs of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Little Miss Sunshine."