“That’s the last time you ever stay out of a fight”
Watching the end credits of Shotgun Stories brought with it the realization that David Gordon Green was a producer. This shouldn’t be a surprise for those familiar with the writer/director’s early, best work, but in light of the low brow comedies Your Highness and The Sitter one might wonder if the indie darling will ever return to the dramatic subject matter he once mastered. His is a cautionary tale—I know it’s selfish of me to say this considering Green has every right to diversify and create what his heart desires—that I hope Jeff Nichols never falls prey to follow. Even with a sophomore effort in Take Shelter that’s so meticulously measured and internalized in its orchestrations and environment, I still was unprepared for the quiet ferocity of his debut.
Both of Nichols’ films exist in the same downtrodden landscape populated by blue-collar attitudes of pride and family, the listless stuck in a life where escape was never a possibility. Rundown trailers remain stationary as beat-up trucks roll through the ghost town of a community barely hanging on. For most, those bonded by blood are the only commodities worth keeping safe as arduous jobs become chores while their measly twenty thousand dollars a year is spent before the check even clears. Education isn’t a top priority for families needing manpower and bodies to sustain what simple lives they have, proving why the only form of excitement stems from a brutally vicious assault on one’s enemies. It’s a world where blood also creates enemies, a once drunkenly abusive father’s trio of boys waging war against the quartet raised after he cleaned himself up—forgetting those he left behind in the process.
Without much to call your own in the Southeast Arkansas town these boys call home, protecting one’s family goes further than the empty words of most who never need to understand what it truly means to do so elsewhere. For Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), waking up to find his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) and son Carter (Cole Hendrixson) gone to her mother’s stings, but practicality lets him realize he can help out his brothers by inviting them in during the separation. A harsh stoicism etched to his face, we know Son misses his loves even if the mechanical motions of drinking coffee and going to work at the local fish farm mask even the smallest glimpse. He doesn’t show emotions for the world to take advantage. He tries to keep everything internalized as he works through it, but the memory of the childhood he was made to endure on behalf of an evil dad and hateful mother cannot be kept buried.
And this is where Shotgun Stories’ conflict begins—two clans of half brothers bred to despise one another because of the father one wished was dead and the other was allowed to love. We don’t know the extent of their feud from the past, but it seems to be at the point where everyone leaves each other well enough alone. That all changes, though, with a knock at Son’s door from their estranged mother telling the boys their father passed away. Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) stand in silence as their eldest brother questions whether she’ll attend the funeral. Her reply of “No” only cements his need to go and make sure the truth is no longer swept under the rug. The man who taught him what disappointment and cruelty meant couldn’t be sent to hell by a group of people with love in their hearts; his side needed to be heard.
Thus we see the lengths men will go to protect the family they have and memory of those they’ve lost. It doesn’t matter how much they have going for them—Son fighting to keep his family together, Boy teaching the town’s boys responsibility through basketball, and Kid on the verge of starting a family of his own—because pride runs deeper than knowing what they’ll lose if all goes wrong. Only Cleamon Hayes (Michael Abbott Jr.) can see past the anger to understand he’s too old for the fight with two little boys at home; he can turn the other cheek when Son desecrates his father being laid to rest. Sadly, the hotheaded Mark (Travis Smith), crazed John (David Rhodes), and follower Stephen (Lynnsee Provence) find such restraint impossible. The fire is stoked to ignite a battle to the death in tragic fashion.
With only Shannon finding a semblance of stardom in the years after release, it’s easy to dismiss just how good his supporting cast is. The group of ‘loved’ brothers might be broad depictions of wronged men seeking retribution, but they never have to be more. Abbott Jr. grounds them as the voice of reason and his eventual descent into violence may be the most authentic as a result. As for the older boys left to fend for themselves in the harsh world set before them, there isn’t an end to the praise deserved. Shannon is fantastic embodying the role by completely losing himself to its passion in a way only he can, but Ligon and Jacobs give him a run for his money as the siblings he still must care for. Through laconic exchanges and innocent moments like basking in the cool breeze of an air conditioner outside on a picnic bench, we experience the humanity beneath the anger they willingly let control them.
Scarred like Son’s back—the town’s subject for wagering whether he was shot on a botched robbery or by the scorned husband of a woman he cheated with, but never the true story—the fractured Hayes family can never be whole nor find freedom from a father’s decision to become a better man without first making it up to those he wrong. Until someone finds the courage and strength to open their eyes and see how they’ve all become a copy of this man at his worst despite opposing upbringings, each will bury a brother until there are none left. This hatred passed down through generations blackens the hearts of sons by the pain of their fathers; the cycle continuing in perpetuity to leave crying widows and mothers wondering what the point of it all was.