Revenge on a Small (but Tragic) Scale

Revenge on a Small (but Tragic) Scale May 3, 2011

Conversations about violence, justice, revenge, and healing have no doubt been taking place across social media, in workplaces, homes, and classrooms around the world over the past 48 hours. A recent under-the-radar indie film, Shotgun Stories, reminds us that violence, rather than ending violence, simply begets more of it.

Shotgun Stories, written and directed by native Arkansan Jeff Nichols, tells the story of Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), three young-to-middle-age men living in southeastern Arkansas. They don’t do much. Boy attempts to coach jr. high/high school basketball (he’s a fountain of Arkansas basketball knowledge) while Son and Kid work at the local fish farm. Their, clearly estranged, mother visits them one night to tell them their father has died. None of them express any emotion over this loss.

When the three brothers crash their father’s funeral, we learn that he had abandoned them years before, ironically, after he sobered up. Son delivers a few not-too-kind words about his father that enrage his step-brothers, three young men who benefited from his overturned leaf. These tough words set off a family feud between the two sets of brothers that escalates over a series of vignettes throughout the film from verbal confrontations to pranks and finally to fatal fistfights. Suffice it to say that both families lose, and it’s hard to see how they’ll ever actually win. In between these brotherly confrontations, Son and Kid struggle with a marriage and a potential engagement, respectively, while Boy seems to be content to live in his van down by the river.

Son (Michael Shannon) contemplates his next move.

Shotgun Stories‘ many strengths include fine writing that is simultaneously funny and deeply moving, solid performances by professional (Shannon) and amateur actors alike, and strong cinematography. A highlight of Nichols’ work here is the way in which he exhibits a level of restraint lacking in many films like this. It is clear that Son, Boy and Kid suffered at the hands of their father, but they do not verbally obsess over it (guys like these never would) nor does Nichols feel compelled to provide flashbacks. The actors’ performances, their difficulty in connecting with each other and the near impossibility of developing strong relationships outside their family circles is evidence enough. Nichols, in what could have been a film full to the brim with violent images, resists those temptations as well. In the process, he refuses to glorify the very thing that he pushes against. Through ominous music and cinematography, we know that violent events are just over the horizon. By ratcheting up our expectations without providing the release of sustained depictions of violence, we have a more tense viewing experience on our hands (one that kept me up well past midnight to finish it).

Boy (Douglas Ligon) makes a bold move.

Based on true events in Nichols’ small Arkansas home town, Shotgun Stories provides, on a much smaller scale, an antidote to the broader furor surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden. Son and Kid, so ready to attack their tormentors, fail to see that they will eventually fall victim to their own violent acts. On the other hand, Boyd, who briefly attempts to walk a revengeful path, finally realizes that an act of surrender, while placing him in a perilous position, will make way for the healing that his family so desperately needs.

Shotgun Stories (92 mins.) is rated PG-13 for violence, thematic elements and brief strong language and is available on DVD through Netflix.

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