And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and slew him.
In honor of Dionysus, the ancient Greeks performed annual plays of tragedy—or tragōidiā—in an effort to satisfy their god with dances, chants and songs. Phrynichus is often considered the originator of recognizable Greek tragedy, and the most famous tragedians, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus have left an indelible legacy throughout the centuries. The Roman and finally Christian appreciation of the Hellenistic art form finds itself expressed in myriad ways—with a greater emphasis on “closet drama,” writings to be read rather than performed. Elizabethean England and the French Renaissance held host to revivals of tragedian writings, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Alexandre Hardy and Jean Mairet.
The notion of tragedy in American independent cinema today often conjures imagery of drably downbeat movies about the hopelessness of violence or drug addiction. Shotgun Stories, however, is a cinematic tragedy that feels as deep, palpable, authentic and ineluctable as nearly any essaying of bloodlines, kin, familial bonds and masculine heartache. The picture is a compendium piece of sorts, a work of measured, almost calcified, excavation of misdirected anger and frustration. Many films traffic in roughly similar veins—violence is self-perpetuating, and people must outgrow their basest instincts if they are to completely mature—but Shotgun Stories makes its case with on a sui generis frequency, with an indelible acuity. Writer-director Jeff Nichols gifts his first feature with an emotional honesty, forged with painstaking patience and dexterous delicacy, that is finally nothing less than walloping in its hushed reticence. Nichols crafts a simple story with an attention to detail that leaves the sorrowful events depicted both cautiously internalized and lividly apparent. The final result is like witnessing a silent explosion.
The Arkansas Delta-set Shotgun Stories stars Michael Shannon (recently stealing some of the conventional thunder in Revolutionary Road) as Son Hayes, whose entire subdued presence seems to mutedly suggest rationality and an almost preternatural wisdom born from past pain. Son, as the tale's central character, is rightly the film's most profoundly tragic figure—that refutation of the hold that reason should have on thinking individuals but all too often loses out to the tumultuous emotions that restlessly animate. Son and his two half-brothers, Boy Hayes (Douglas Ligon) and Kid Hayes (Barlow Jacobs), find themselves invited to their biological father's funeral. Their father abandoned them as children and sired another set of brothers. Nichols makes the funeral—where Son cannot keep himself silent, and his words, like Cordelia in King Lear, precipitate the grave troubles to follow—the one fateful occurrence that creates the conditions for the entire drama to unravel. A mere contretemps invites feuding mayhem. That gradual process—equal parts accretion and attrition—is never less than wholly consuming. It is with an unsettling maturity that Nichols mounts his small town tragedy.
In one steady long shot, Nichols surveys the three brothers, Son, Kid and Boy, sitting on a barren street corner of their empty, dead ghost town. In one of the most accomplished moments of the picture, a brother comments on the town, saying that it is indeed a dead down. Not missing a beat, one of the brothers remarks that this deserted town seems to belong to them. Another points out that if he owned this town he would sell it. The parallels to tragedies involving royalty arise—the Hayes are, in one dynamic visage, the forgotten and the summation all at once. Their town is depicted as a wasteland but within their own world they are something approximating kings. Son in particular has the Machiavellian strain about him that seems to guard against those he suspects of chronic wrongdoing—a willingness to preserve his family as he sees it at almost any cost. This is only one of the attributes that makes Shotgun Stories so different from the independent features vaguely similar in their minimalism—Nichols' picture embraces a mythicism that couples the fact with the fictive, so the final result is one of a heightened, hypnotizing verisimilitude. This is Ballast by way of opera; the quotidian is sanctified, by Lucero Pyramid's haunting original score and Adam Stone's aesthetically ethereal cinematography.
So Nichols' endowment and augmentation of all of the small moments matters. The emotional and psychological heft Nichols lends the suppositiously “small moments” is remarkable—from grabbing and throwing away a deck of playing cards to dismantling a tent, and finally a long silence of disorientation marked by pregnant pauses as Son decides to seek vengeance for a wrong committed because he cannot bear to allow the horrible loss to go unanswered. The early friction between the the purely palpable and mesmerically lyrical is slowly conformed into a strictly complementary relationship as Nichols' tightening of cinematic language waxes with each ascending sequence, each contemplative scene. It is as though Nichols is finding illumination through the process of creating his own art—as exciting an experience to be found.
As in classic Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, a character exists to relate information to the principals, often just enough to ensure their fates of despair. Shotgun Stories has Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins), who functions as unwitting provocateur in his detailed tales. It is through this character that events spiral out of control. Nichols allows the character ample humanity, but the part is an excellent distillation of how woeful catastrophes organically sprout.
Shotgun Stories also differs from many a violence-laden picture in its depiction of violence. All too often loosely defined revenge yarns and action tales, and even nominally anti-violence films seem to relish any and all opportunity to display violence—as a kind of self-medicating bout with unfortunately wrongly-prescribed antidotes—and most cinematic violence is italicized and underlined, which all too often serves to provide catharsis. While not wholly illegitimate—cinema is a cathartic, sublimating art form—violence as act is usually highlighted, which underplays the consequences and aftermath of violence. Nichols inverts this, and the rewards are manifold: unconventional and dissatisfying, the blood-for-blood violence never takes on a pleasing characteristic, much less dimensional plane. Just as it appears as though a character is about to suffer a traumatic injury, Nichols deprives the viewer of the actual image, the certain act. In one climactic moment, just as the viewer has been offered enough visual information to ascertain precisely what is about to occur, Nichols sagely cuts to black. Francois Truffaut contended that no film which featured war could ever be considered truly antiwar; cinema has a way of making everything about life exhilaratingly delirious, including bloody, ontic violence. For Nichols, he forces the viewer's attention on the frequently forgotten aftermath. This filmmaker is not interested in providing mere catharsis, and certainly seems to be repulsed by the concept of violence being cinematically fetishized. When he finally lingers on the toll, it is with a heavy, disconsolate heart.
Nichols' interpretative reading of his characters and their setting is morose and slightly incensed—at the horrible waste and senselessness which in such unforgiving ways has doomed the Hayes progeny before they had a chance. The stifling humidity accompanies the declaiming disappointment Son has for his father, but more so for the abstraction that his father was. The bloodlines unite and divide in Shotgun Stories, and the ineluctable seething rage that spills forth is as deadly as cascading molten lava. The internecine struggle that plays itself out is allegorical, finding in its sociological context a scathing reading of behavior. Fortunately, Nichols plays with the possibilities, and exquisitely extrapolates a much more meaningful postulation. One which has everything to do with choices, and the existing, sometimes ostensibly buried, choice to escape the futility of an abysmal pathway to self-immolation and death. It is in dramatizing the choices with which his characters are confronted that Nichols finds the most disarming substance of all between these young men. That they have choices, too—and perhaps they can choose to avert the misery tragedies are supposed to have in store for their participants.