Jeff Nichols’ work stands out because he presents the lives of working-class people without making political statements. His characters feel authentic, and he takes the time to reveal more than what’s connected to the plot. His direction has felt more assured with each of his three films; Mud was beautiful and felt even more confident than the remarkable Take Shelter. Nichols showcases his actors, particularly Michael Shannon in two starring roles. Characters have depth and don’t always function like we expect from their introductions. Amazingly, Nichols is only 35 years old and feels like a veteran. For this Young Filmmakers marathon, I’m digging into work from rising directors that are just getting started and have already made an impact. This first entry is about Nichols’ 2007 debut Shotgun Stories, which depicts a severe divide within families connected by one man. The aftermath of his death ignites a violent conflict that could have tragic consequences.
Shannon stars as Son Hayes, a gambling addict whose wife and son have just left. His two brothers are even less financially secure. Kid (Barlow Jacbobs) sleeps in a tent on his lawn, while Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives in a van. They’re hardly a model of success, but they get along well. Their father is a different story. His death brings about a much different reaction than the normal loss of a parent. A funeral might be the worst place in history to discuss past demons, but that doesn’t stop Son from speaking his mind about this dad. This is a terrible idea, and it creates a huge rift with the family his father raised after skipping out on them. No one’s willing to step down after this moment, and Son’s decision threatens to wreak a lot of damage. Once the conflict escalates, it’s hard to remember where it all started. The pattern of retaliations is heading for a disastrous outcome.
Surrounding this fight are the frustrations of the first Hayes trio with their economic situation. It’s never stated outright, but the greater status of the second family plays a role in the nastiness. Not only did their dad leave them, he also did better financially! On the other side, it’s clear that Mark (Travis Smith) Hayes and his three brothers look down on Son for having no money. Their father probably gave a negative impression of his original family, and they view them as villains denigrating his good name. It’s easy to see what sets them off, yet they never stop to think about whether the accusations are true. The peacemaker is Cleaman (Michael Abbott Jr.), but there’s little he can do once the tide starts flowing. Class and family are two subjects that strike a personal chord, and even normally peaceful folks will throw down if their background is given a bad name.
Shotgun Stories has a similar feeling to the early work of David Gordon Green like George Washington and Undertow, so it’s no surprise that Green was one of its producers. The difference with Nichols’ approach is that he spends less time focusing on the landscape. That’s merely the backdrop for the personal stories of regret, fear, and revenge. Green offers a beautiful look at the worn-out homes and debris of poor rural areas, and there’s little of that approach here. What makes Nichols’ films so powerful is how engaged we are with the characters. He’s the writer and director and gives each story a clear flow. They feel natural and lack the over plotting that can doom even the most talented young director. We don’t learn everything about Son and his brothers, and that’s just fine.
Some of the most interesting aspects of Shotgun Stories are what’s left unsaid between the characters. The choice of Son, Kid, and Boy as their names raises questions of why they go by those monikers. Do they avoid their birth names because of their awful father, or were those the nicknames chosen by a cruel guy? The other characters have names like Mark and Stephen, so this isn’t a situation where Nichols uses the device for all the roles. We spend little time with the women in their lives, but the relationships don’t seem limited. Their angry mother appears briefly, and there’s no wasted time to explain her continued anger at life. Her sons could die, and she’d barely bat an eye. It takes serious craftsmanship to keep the audience engaged without falling prey to exposition. Nichols is just getting started, but his talent was clear in his first film. The drama is understated but still packs a punch, and there’s no predicting where the conflict will lead. It’s clear that the Hayes brothers on both sides have enough conviction to kill the others if necessary, and that understanding provides a chilling certainty as we head towards the end.