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Shotgun Stories
cast: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacob

writer and director: Jeff Nichols

86 minutes (12) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Vertigo DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
Shotgun Stories is one of those low-key American dramas with a cast of actors you've probably never heard of. Often these films can be something of a chore; but sometimes, as here, they can be gems.

The film is beautifully filmed for such a low-budget production, with evocative shots that are imbued with an expressive sense of melancholy and serve to illustrate the psychological as well as physical boundaries of small-town Arkansas. Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) - named, I assume, to demonstrate how uncaring their parents were - are working class drop-outs raised by their abandoned mother to hate their father's new family, the Hayes.

Son, the oldest of the brothers, is the only one with a home and a family of his own. Middle brother Boy lives in his van; the younger Kid sleeps in a tent pitched on Son's lawn. Both of Son's siblings move into his home when his wife leaves because of his gambling problem. When their estranged father dies, the three young men attend the funeral, where Son reveals a few home truths in front of the dead man's second family - the scene is honest and electric, and sets up much of what follows. The bond between the brothers is delicately drawn, built up by the use of subtle observation and the accumulation of minor details: quiet scenes of interaction, where nothing much is said.

Son and his wife struggle to connect; Kid is confused about the thought of marrying his girlfriend; Boy is obsessed with the teenage basketball team he coaches - the only source of meaning in his life. After a fishing trip with Son's own son Carter, there is a confrontation with the Hales brothers in a service station. Fists are thrown, threats are issued: lines are drawn and crossed.

Things escalate when one of the Hayes boys lets loose a snake to kill Boy's dog, and a chain-reaction of events is triggered. Inevitably, violence ensues, with events taking over the destinies of both sets of brothers and leading to tragic results. There are some nice naturalistic performances here, and the talented Michael Shannon particularly manages to imbue his role with a sense of internalised rage. The characters are frustrated at the lack of direction in their lives, and driven to extreme acts by their own impotence in the face of life's problems.

The plot is very linear, with an even progression of events, but this familiar structure doesn't detract from the overall impact of the piece. It's all about the characters and how they crumble and give in to the destructive lessons they have been taught by family and society since childhood. The film actually struck me as the U.S. counterpart of a Shane Meadows film.

The film's ending does seem to peter out rather than deliver any kind of final dramatic climax, but the writer deserves kudos for not finishing things as one might expect. Rather than take the easy option, the script ends on a quite, sombre note, and a sort of balance is achieved.
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