Jeff Nichols’ films deal intimately with working- and lower-class families and the struggles they face. In the case of Take Shelter, an apocalyptic worry was thrown in, and the health of the daughter was the particular motivating struggle, whereas Mud framed the struggle through the eyes of a young boy, thereby emphasizing fatherhood and, just as successfully, the understanding of love as it is seen through his eyes. Both films thus have a larger scope than Nichols’ debut film, Shotgun Stories, but both have their issues, too. Take Shelter is plagued by a terrible ending and also too often struggled to handle its quietly large scope, while Mud’s second half is in a bit too much of a rush and takes away from the film’s magic. Both (and particularly Mud) are still quite successful, but in many ways, Shotgun Stories is Nichols’ most realized film, rarely biting off more than it can chew and stripping down distractions to focus exclusively on small-town, struggling families.
Upbringing and forgiveness are themes that run throughout Shotgun Stories, which focuses on two sets of half-brothers who begin to feud after Son (Michael Shannon) speaks ill of their shared father at his funeral. Raised to hate, both sets of brothers regularly confront the other and set off an increasingly grave string of tragedies. Nichols keeps mostly to Son and his two brothers, Kid and Boy, who are smart enough to realize and remind each other that retaliation is not the smartest decision but are never quite able to control their emotions. The other family, consisting of the elder Mark and Cleaman and the younger Stephen and John, are not the focus of the story but are drawn out quite distinctively. Mark and Stephen are far more militant than the other two, and John, crucially, is a college student—likely the person in the film who ever has been. That John is also the less militant and thus more rational and forgiving of the younger brothers suggests that education is the surest way out of a cycle in which violence begets violence.
Son is likable, providing for his brothers, doing his best to be a good father and husband, but also a gambling addict convinced that he’s on the verge of figuring things out. He makes rash decisions but is also a voice of reason and a character with an unspoken backstory—what situation led to the shotgun wounds on his back—that keeps us involved. If Son, a working-class man, good-hearted but flawed, can learn to forgive, apologize, and keep his priorities in order, it would be a representative victory for working-class America, a display that intelligence can arise without formal education and that hard work and a level-head can prevent tragedy. John, meanwhile, would stand in as the hope for a youthful future, educated and loving.
For all these characters, family comes first. The reminder of family is what prevents violence, but loyalty to family is also what causes it in the first place. The notions Nichols puts forward are far from sentimental; family is blinding but also the only reliable force in a long, difficult life. When you need to stick with your family and when you need to be the better, smarter man and forgive instead is a question that all these characters grapple with in their own way, and watching their internal conflicts play out externally provides more than enough drama to sustain the film. Adam Stone’s cinematography is not as developed here as it is in Nichols’ two later films; he captures bleak rural America but doesn’t find the powerful images as frequently as in Take Shelter or Mud, so the heavy lifting is on editing patterns—occasionally a bit scattered but always clear—and writing, which does the bulk of the heavy-lifting. Every line of dialogue is a crucial uncovering of a character’s inner values, a look at how heavily opposing forces of family and forgiveness weigh down on them.
There are a few loose-ends; Boy’s job as a basketball coach is strangely underdeveloped, a complement to the idea of education as escape that is never quite made clear, and Son’s marriage and gambling problem always seem to be on the backburner despite their importance to the story. At the same time, they never come needlessly into the foreground only to retreat again, which allows Shotgun Stories to maintain its focus. Thus, the story we get, although a little bit unsatisfying, feels neither rushed nor incomplete. It tells exactly the story it wants to tell exactly the way it wants to tell it, something a bit harder to say (at least for me) about Nichols’ subsequent films.
*I reviewed Mud earlier in the month; that review can be read here.