Friday, 22 February 2008

GFF review: Shotgun Stories, by Sandra Dupuy

Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Running time: 90 min
Certificate: 18
Screening: 20th and 21st of February at the GFT; on general release from the 11th of April

Shotgun Stories is sharp as a knife and languid as a sunny afternoon stroll in the town of England, Arkansas. In his first feature, director, writer and producer Jeff Nichols engineers a feud between two sets of half brothers whose father has just died. Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid Hayes (Barlow Jacobs) are the unlucky first brood of “a man who made [their] life hell and left [them] to be raised by a hateful woman”, says the elder in an impromptu and unwelcome speech at the old man’s funeral, where his second wife and her four sons are present. The incident will soon assume the accents of a Greek tragedy, escalating into ineluctable hate, desperation and death.

Nichols, in a harrowing succession of short and potent scenes, depicts life in the cotton fields and back roads of poor rural Arkansas, filming derelict landscapes and abandoned silos on the fringes of town, where stray dogs roam for scraps of food and miserable souls give in to hopelessness out of sheer lassitude. The disenchanted characters of Shotgun Stories possess the quiet resignation of Cormac McCarthy’s lowlifes and the simmering anger so powerfully orchestrated by Tennessee Williams. Son, Boy and Kid, the three unnamed and unwanted brothers, cannot keep up with a dreamless life of wandering until the fundamental wrong, the primeval abandon, has been righted.

The director’s elliptic style is well complemented by Adam Stone’s striking cinematography. A natural golden and powdery daylight contrasts deep blue skies with yellow fields and brown dirt tracks through which the characters, wrapped in tense silence, drag grief and grudges for eternity. Looks are essential tools of cinema language, and the exchange of gazes between brothers, husbands and wives or parents and sons reveal much more than all the histrionics in the world.

Never melodramatic or self-indulgent, Nichols' script leaves space for a documentary-like approach to performance and violence. Simultaneously infused with the festering fury of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) and the harsh poetry of Terence Malick’s meandering Badlands (1973), Shotgun Stories calls for compelling and compulsory viewing.

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