By Jeffrey Overstreet
I tried to write about Shotgun Stories without mentioning you-know-who. It’s become such a cliché. A talented new artist captures a sense of the sacred and the profane in the American South, and before you can say “Christ-haunted” or “Southern Gothic,” there she is! It’s almost as if the standard-bearer of the genre created the South, just as the man who made Middle Earth is mentioned whenever we discuss contemporary fantasy.
For me, the American South seems as fantastical as Mirkwood Forest. I’ve never lived there. My understanding has come from stories like Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. So, when a bold new voice brings the truth to life in the cotton fields, catfish farms, family feuds, and civil wars of Arkansas—as writer/director Jeff Nichols has done with his first feature, Shotgun Stories—I can’t avoid the comparison. Within a few short scenes I sense a compelling authenticity and a familiar flavor of insight.
Nichols’s leading man, Michael Shannon, seems to have emerged from an illustration in a book by Faulkner or Steinbeck. He plays Son, one of three despondent Hayes brothers embittered by their father’s neglect. Son, Boy, and Kid are poor, but resourceful; cantankerous, but loyal; uneducated, but keenly aware of injustice. As they sit on a curb at the end of a workday, their conversation is revealing: “This is one empty-ass town.” “It’s like we own it!” “If I owned this town, I’d sell it.” “We don’t own the square root of shit.”
After news arrives of their father’s death, Son and his brothers crash the funeral. There, we learn that Mr. Hayes abandoned them for something new, a “redeemed” life—he sobered up, married a good Christian woman, gave his life to Christ, and raised new sons. Son interrupts graveside prayers, harshly reminding the astonished mourners that his father’s sins went unconfessed and unresolved, and then spits on the coffin. Thus begins a violent, bloody civil war between the two sets of sons.
Nichols knows this territory. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and he clearly drew some insight from that Bible-belted region. (He even gave Merle Johnson, the pastor of his childhood’s Trinity Methodist church, the role of the funeral’s minister.) And he’s benefitted from his friendship with director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels), who attended North Carolina School of the Arts with him. Both artists know the power of pregnant pauses and open spaces. Like Terrence Malick, Nichols knows that the sight of a combine transforming an Arkansas cotton field into an apocalyptic dust storm is as eloquent as anything his characters might say.
But the film’s most formidable character actually never appears—except when he’s inside that pine box. Nichols tells me that developing the late Mr. Hayes was the first step in writing this story. “Then,” he says, “when you step away from the father, you’ve built an entire world for your characters to live in. [So much] happened before the movie starts, the train is at full speed by the time we join in.”
Nichols sees this story as a reminder that faith must be “a holistic practice.” He says, “Hayes was able to turn things around in a relatively positive way. The one thing he didn’t do was go back and fix what he left behind. Whether that was from shame, or from something else, it doesn’t matter. You can’t say you’re one thing and be another. You have to examine your entire life. I think that’s what Christianity is really all about for me. It’s about constantly striving to be something that’s decent.”
As simmering hatred rises to a boil in the film, it’s uncanny how some moments, some lines, seem inspired by recent speeches and justifications for global conflict. That brawl in a liquor store parking lot may as well be a Baghdad skirmish.
Nichols resists summarizing Shotgun Stories as either a political statement or a character drama. “It had to be both,” he says, “in order to avoid falling short on either count. But there’s no question that what is going on in the world is directly reflected in Shotgun Stories. An eye for an eye is alive and well in the American consciousness, and in our political policies.... You look at these conflicts in the world and wonder, how can we resolve these problems? All of these ‘feuds’ are supported by plenty of history...history that validates a lot of anger. But both sides can just go on perpetuating the violence into...into forever.”
Avoiding both sentimentality and predictable shootouts, Nichols arrives at a thought-provoking conclusion. “Some people like the ending, some people don’t. Some are crying for blood,” he says. Laughing, he adds, “Me, I find it extremely scary.”
It’s enough to remind one of what a certain famous Southern writer said: “The Christian writer does not decide what would be good for the world and proceed to deliver it. Like a very doubtful Jacob, he confronts what stands in his path and wonders if he will come out of the struggle at all.”
Shotgun Stories is now available on DVD from Liberation Entertainment.