26 May 2008

SHOTGUN STORIES (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2007, US) - A beautifully understated debut feature

Hate can be self destructive to a community and it is a theme that has been explored in many different ways by film makers from across the globe. The immediate film that comes to mind is Kassovitz’s 1995 masterpiece, La Haine. In La Haine, hate comes from the divide between the hard line police state that patrols the Parisian ghetto and the unemployed, disillusioned youth who have become marginalised within a deeply unequal French society.

Shotgun Stories is the directorial debut of Jeff Nichols and has been produced by the award winning American independent film maker, David Gordon Green. This is most definitely a mood piece and reminded me of a lyricism captured in recent indie films like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.

When three brothers attend the funeral of their dead father, the oldest brother, Son Hayes, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon gives a short speech on his father’s virtual absence in their lives, accusing him of serious neglect, he sets in motion a vengeful feud with the children of his father’s second marriage that leads to uncontrollable rage and a spiral of reprisals.

This is a film about parental neglect and ignorance being passed onto and displaced into children who not only grow up to become emotionally distant in forming relationships but have no way of preventing repressed feelings of hate coming to the foreground and simply exploding into acts of violence. When Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) visits his estranged mother after having lost his younger brother in a bloody confrontation, she stands on the lawn outside her house and listens as her son tells her about how they were brought up to hate. It is a brutally powerful scene, probably the defining moment in a film filled with understatement, and the emotional logic comes from the mother's refusal to speak because when she faces her children she sees the self reflection of hate, bigotry and ignorance that is generational and natural. Her children's incapacity to show compassion and understanding is all about social conditioning.

Michael Shannon is without a doubt turning into one of the best actors of his generation and he has already shown a remarkable range in the characters he has portrayed in films as diverse as World Trade Centre, Bug, and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. His restrained and controlled performance style references Christopher Walken, Billy Bob Thornton and Robert De Niro - he is one of those rare actors who knows how to convey anger as an emotion without making it seem forced and exaggerated.

The famous scriptwriter, William Goldman, has written extensively about how Hollywood films find it very difficult not to give everything away in the first ten minutes. The need for over exposition is something that Jeff Nichols avoids sincerely and thus his film is deeply enigmatic in how it preserves the mystery of key characters and does not divulge details about a back story involving the buckshot marks on the back of Son Hayes. Goldman is right, the less you reveal about the key characters past, the more you will be able to control the spectator.

Unlike a thematically similar film like La Haine that is very pessimistic in its representation of the prospects of the youth, ending on a violent note, Shotgun Stories constructs an ideological position that advocates the need for reconciliation and understanding so to avoid perpetuating yet more feelings of hate. Whilst most Hollywood films would have got on their soap box and preached to us such liberal sentiments (the recent Paul Haggis film, Crash, comes to mind - this was both preachy and contrived), Shotgun Stories does it in such a way that we don't feel awkward or scornful towards the talented artists involved in this beautifully understated film.

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