The presence of David Gordon Green‘s name in “Shotgun Stories“‘ billing block is probably both a blessing and a curse for the reception of Jeff Nichols‘s feature film debut. On the one hand, it broadcasts what sort of film this is — an earnest character study with a touch of that neo-Southern Gothic quirkiness that Green has made his own. But on the other hand, it will probably authorize some unforgiving comparisons to a style of filmmaking that — judging by the maddeningly uneven “Snow Angels” — even Green himself seems to have exhausted. With a trailer for Green’s Seth Rogen–James Franco stoner comedy “Pineapple Express” and head-scratching rumors of a “Suspiria” remake circling the internet, it’s becoming clear that even Green is anxious to move on from the type of filmmaking he patented, even as a cottage industry of similar films flourishes.
Fortunately for Nichols, however, there is much to “Shotgun Stories” that elevates it above the fray of Green derivatives and unflattering categorizations. For one thing, his tale of two warring sets of half-brothers in semi-rural Arkansas is bolstered by a roster of naturalistic, fully assimilated performances, led by “Bug“‘s now ubiquitous Michael Shannon. As Son Hayes, a fish-farmhand and aspiring cardsharp in England, Arkansas, Shannon projects a kind of taciturn machismo that never becomes the cliche it might have been. With little more than a bungalow, a rocky marriage, and a pick-up to his name, Son bears his responsibilities as reluctant patriarch, housing his two wayward but loveable brothers — the similarly semi-named Kid and Boy — who occasionally live, respectively, in a tent and a van.
The conflict at the film’s center is sparked by the death of the boys’ father, an abusive drunk who abandoned them at an early age to live the Christian life with a new wife and a new set of Hayes boys. Spitting on the old man’s coffin, Son provokes a fresh rivalry between the two sets of half-brothers — one seemingly provided for and well-adjusted, the other itinerant and unambitious. The latter set, consisting of Son, Kid, and Boy, is naturally the more sympathetic, and although Nichols is arguably at his most Green-like in investing them with eccentricities (Boy, for example, coaches the neighborhood kids in basketball and tries to cool his van with a jury-rigged air conditioner), the performances adeptly convey a winning, cozy naturalism.
Throughout “Shotgun Stories,” Nichols maintains a mellow tone tempered by a slight foreboding — so slow and meditative that at times one expects the conflicts at the film’s heart to peter out of their own inertia. But events and tempers do indeed bubble over, and while this doesn’t come as a surprise, it’s nonetheless slightly undermotivated by the film’s laconic pace. Nichols neatly invests his protagonists with intelligence and sympathy, but he never really probes the anger and bitterness that sparks their conflicts with the other characters. The film seems to work so hard at undermining the inclination of average, urban audiences and film reviewers to label this as a film about rednecks, hillbillies, white trash, and holler folk that it never provides an adequate sense of the passions at the root of the characters’ exceedingly poor judgment. We never get a firm idea of exactly how they came to be who they are, just as the real source of the buckshot scars on Son’s back remains cloudy. But if this represents a shortcoming in his screenplay — supplanting character development with a collection of offhand quirks and mannerisms — Nichols more than compensates with his direction of a dedicated cast. And if David Gordon Green is somehow to be thanked for this, all the better.