Dir. Jeff Nichols
Premiered at Berlin February 14, 2007
Although it remains the greatest year in cinema history, 2007 feels very much like a prelude to the current decade in filmmaking. But for a handful of factors that will come up at the end of this series, 2007 would probably have been remembered not as a standout year in itself but as the vanguard of a whole new era of powerful independent filmmaking that challenged Hollywood’s understanding of audience, genre, and the business overall. And if anyone represents the continuity between the ten years ago and today, it’s Jeff Nichols.
Although nowhere near as famous as Denis Villeneuve or Nicolas Winding Refn, you’ve probably seen some of his movies if you’re reading this: Mud, Take Shelter, last year he did two movies, Midnight Special and Loving. And though his works take on many different genres, they all have a similar personality: rural, wide-angle, lots of scenes on porches, a steadfast refusal to explain anything early on, and probably starring whoever was in William Friedkin’s last movie. Shotgun Stories is basically the same: a character-driven slice-of-life from Nichols’ native Arkansas, it’s an experiment in supposition, and lets you the viewer fill in the gap. This is equally riveting and frustrating.
The film begins by following Son Hayes (Michael Shannon). By day, Son is a fish farmer, whose coworkers speculate about the origin of the shotgun wound permanently embossed on his back. By night, he’s a gambling addict, a math whiz whose insistence on having a “system” drives his wife and son to leave the home. In their place, Son takes in his homeless brothers, youth basketball coach Boy (Douglas Ligon) and tent-dwelling loverboy Kid (Barlow Jacobs).
Hearing of the death of their estranged father, Son takes it upon himself to attend the funeral and publicly dispell the deceased’s cultivated image of piety and good-naturedness. This upsets dad’s second family, the other Hayes boys (Lynnsee Province, Michael Abbott, Jr., and Travis Smith), sending the two families down a path of honor-bound bloodshed, all of it offscreen.
And to tell the truth, not much happens. Aside from the inciting incident at the funeral, none of the major plot points are actually shown. Instead, we get well-acted brotherly bonding and well-shot scenery, so while not unpleasant, I expect to completely forget having ever seen it. I recognize Nichols’ contribution to the current period of filmmaking, but this is a problem I’ve had with all of his movies: all meat with no bones.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Boy considers putting rims and underlighting on his van, and mentions Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot’s cover of “Car Wash” from the Shark Tale soundtrack of all things.
How Did It Do?
Despite a positive reception at the Berlin Film Festival, Shotgun Stories was only picked up by Multicom Entertainment Group, a distributor so obscure that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page– contrast with Peace Arch Entertainment, the people who distributed Chapter 27. Buried in March of 2008, it played in just one theater stateside, grossing $168,237 and failing even to recoup its miniscule $250,000 budget. Despite this, Shotgun Stories managed to make several critics’ 2008 top ten lists, including a #1 spot from Bill White of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Fresh out of film school, director Jeff Nichols was only able to cast star Michael Shannon through a professor who knew him. This proved to be fortuitous. Shortly after Shotgun Stories premiered at Berlin, star Shannon made a splash when William Friedkin’s comeback vehicle Bug went wide. After biding his time in minor roles for over a decade, he quickly transitioned into a beloved character actor, and possibly the hardest-working, having performed in fourteen films over the last two years. With Shannon’s backing, Nichols was able to parlay his work on Shotgun Stories into a critically-acclaimed directing career.
Next Time: Bridge to Terabithia