30 June 2008

There is no victory in revenge

In Shotgun Stories, Arkansas director Jeff Nichols has constructed a deft low-budget contemporary fable depicting the futility of never-ending cycles of revenge that spring up amongst those who are quick to anger but too proud to value peace-making over retaliation.

The film opens with the death of the father of two sets of half-brothers, one trio of which he abandoned to life with their cruel and vindictive mother. These three, whose names reflect their parents' lack of interest, are Son, Boy and Kid, and they live a meagre existence on the edge of town, holding down dead-end jobs and just scraping by. The second set of brothers came with the father's second wife, whom he married after reforming his ways, and who live on an impressive farm. (No-one mentions the oddness of a man having seven sons and no daughters - sounds like a musical to me - and it doesn't seem to matter that the actors who play Son, Boy and Kid bear absolutely no resemblance to one another).

After Son leads his brothers to the funeral and tells the assembled congregation exactly what he thought of the father who abandoned them, a feud is set off amongst the hot-heated half-brothers. Perhaps spitting on the coffin wasn't the best idea, and things quickly spiral out of control into an ever-increasing cycle of violence of Sicilian proportions.

The film builds the tension expertly, and the viewer is frequently kept on edge as a lone pickup truck looms into view in the distance while characters talk in the quiet, understated Arkansas way in the foreground. This effect is particularly enhanced by the widescreen filming technique: it was shot on 35mm in the anamorphic 2:35 aspect ratio (no, don't ask me, I don't know either - but it sounds nifty). It also works well as a depiction of life in a rural town in the South (it was filmed in England, Arkansas, half an hour or so out of Little Rock on Highway 165, population 3000) - life is slow and there ain't much to do nor much to earn.

The differences between the two sets of half-brothers are spelt out in their automobiles: whereas the elder farming brother Cleaman drives a newish F150 pickup, Son creaks around town in an old pint-sized Mazda pickup (ain't even American!); Boy's ride, which is also his accommodation, is a decrepit van with a malfunctioning cassette deck; and Kid is so broke that he doesn't even have a car, and has to rely on his girlfriend's mother's car to go on a cheeseburger date.

The standout performance in the film is from Michael Shannon, whose restrained depiction of Son Hayes, torn between loyalty to his brothers and the temptations of anger, charts the course of the film. In the end, Shotgun Stories is a quiet achiever of a film, telling a simple story effectively and painting a believable picture of life in the rural American hinterland, where cinema often patronises or basks in homely platitudes.

The film has received positive reviews, but has had almost no luck in obtaining a traditional release, despite the strength of its performances and the quality of its story. Last month in the US it was playing only on a handful of screens (never more than four in total) and receiving negligible box-office takings. But as reviewer Roger Ebert, who loved the film, points out,

This film has literally been saved by the festival circuit. After being rejected by major distributors, it found a home in smaller festivals, where word of mouth propelled it into its current wider release. It has qualities that may not come out in a trailer or in an ad but sink in when you have the experience of seeing it. Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic.

This film deserves a much wider viewership. Here's hoping that cinema-goers will be able to see the film on the big screen before the attention of movie distributors moves on elsewhere in search of a breakthrough hit. One is staring them right in the face.
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