July 14, 2009

Shotgun Stories

Shotgun Stories is an emotionally draining, intense masterpiece that centers around three brothers named Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon). When the brothers are small children, the father abandons them and starts another family in the same rural town and has four more sons, Cleaman (Michael Abbott, Jr.), Stephen (Lynnsee Provence), John (David Rhodes) and Mark (Travis Smith), leaving Son, Kid and Boy to be raised by their spiteful mother, who teaches them to hate their father and his other sons. When their father dies, the brothers attend his funeral, where Son speaks of how he walked out on them, followed by Son spitting on the coffin of the man who didn't even care enough about his first sons to give them proper names. This infuriates Cleaman and Mark and leads to a tragically violent feud between these two sets of brothers.

The film takes place in England, Arkansas, a quiet rural town seemingly stuck in time. It is possibly the most accurate depiction of the American heartland that has ever been captured on film. Images of beautiful farm land contrast with shots of sewage flowing into a river. The tranquil mid-twentieth century look of the rural town contrasts with the grim realities impoverished people living out of vehicles and tents. Thanks to cinematographer Adam Stone, all of the shots in the film look perfectly natural, without any flashy visuals or camera techniques. Overall, this area of the world is portrayed positively. There are no crass redneck stereotypes to speak of, and race is a total non-issue, with Boy coaching a youth basketball team featuring both black and white children. The majority of my family lives in a small Arkansas town not very far from England, so the film's setting resonates somewhat with me.

Michael Shannon's performance is one of the absolute best I have ever seen. Shannon, a gifted supporting actor, finally gets his chance to lead, and he does not disappoint. I would go honestly as far as to call his performance my favorite of 2008. Unknowns Barlow Jacobs and Douglas Ligon are excellent as Son's brothers, particularly Ligon, who gives a meaningful, yet unsentimental performance as Boy, a kind, very likable, impoverished man whose name seems to fit quite well, as he has never really grown up.

First-time writer/director Jeff Nichols, an Arkansas native, has created a true Southern work of art, which is a pretty rare thing. He has chosen to capture things and places we rarely see in films, and that is just one of the many reasons why Shotgun Stories is so special. 10/10

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