Jul. 09, 2008 - Issue #664: Rocky 12
Deep down south, we play this game: Nichols’ debut impresses
Undertow was co-produced by redoubtable Southern auteur Terrence Malick, and now Gordon Green, even as he moves on to non-southern pastures with the Halifax-shot Snow Angels and the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, has taken up the co-producer mantle with a film after his own heartland, Shotgun Stories.
Jeff Nichols’ impressive debut rolls slowly out through the Arkansas town of England. A water tower stands over boarded-up stores. Tattered fronds of plants bend down into the river. Fields of cotton are bathed in a sunset’s light. (DP Adam Stone has committed some gorgeous frames to celluloid here). Yet these aren’t hushed scenes of sublime nature, as in a Malick film. The shots here show a place, a landscape, that just is.
The feud that erupts in Shotgun Stories just is, too. There seems to be no sense to it, just an innate force that slowly gathers momentum, strangling itself with implacable, vice-like strength.
It does have a beginning—when Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), Boy Hayes (Douglas Ligon) and Kid Hayes (Barlow Jacobs) come to the funeral of their father. There, Son spittingly tells the widow and her four sons—whom their reformed father had when he remarried—that the born-again man they knew was still the man who had made out they were never born and abandoned them to their hateful mother.
Son’s bristling resentment and scorn divides these half-families and sets off the male anger that simmers at a low, low heat throughout Nichols’ film. The opening scenes show the brothers talking to each other with a laconic familiarity while puttering away on cars or at a card-counting system or with basketball team strategy. That sense of ease still flits in and out once the feud’s ignited, but it has to contend with the weighty menace of tragedy.
Much of the film’s inevitability comes from Shannon, whose heavy-browed, sharp-staring face commands the screen. When the feud takes another stabbing fork in the road, Shannon’s face is all narrowed eyes and bloodless lips, his emotion drawn in, pursed up tight, coiled to strike. The men speak in short, sometimes sharp sentences, and the film could be wordless, the tragedy moves along so surely. Although almost any background to the boys’ lives is left out, it’s clear that the sins of their parents will be borne by the sons. Son’s back is pocked with buckshot scars and his co-workers take bets on why he was shot. The past stays unknown, yet so immense it threatens to devour the present.
It’s a story built on the fragments and glimpses of a few days here and there. Even the violence comes in short-film moments. The music, some lovely chords from Lucero, Ben Nichols and Benny Mardones, bridges many of the scenes. The grief and bitterness that tears and churns up the brothers—“I gotta git done with this,” is all Son can offer by explanation—is framed by a town that, in places, seems to be rusting out, stranded and abandoned.
Nichols establishes a respectful, gracious rhythm. This is no hick-stereotype South. The one character who could be a yokel or some kind of Trailer Park Boy—a bandaged-up, lank-haired, skinny rogue by the name of Shampoo Douglas—is instead one of those slightly odd types of people everyone knows, not some quirky or freakish figure of fun. It’s Boy, a slightly pot-bellied, Lebowski-looking schlub, who seems the most out of place, but even his personality and dignity show themselves (though Ligon is the only slightly weak actor in an otherwise outstanding cast).
The end reveals just how poetic, shifting and dazzling Nichols’ touch was all along (much like the beauty in a Malick or Gordon Green work that just sneaks up on you). That’s because Shotgun Stories manages to pull away from a hair-trigger resolution with the same inherent, natural right-ness that loaded the story with such tragic force. No mean feat from a first-timer. V
Fri, Jul 11, Sun, Jul 13 & Tue, Jul 15 (9 pm)
Mon, Jul 14 & Wed, Jul 16 (7 pm)
Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs
Metro Cinema, $10
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.