Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Cast: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Lynnsee Provence
Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 92 min.
Terrence Malick may have made only four films in 35 years, but his greatest gift to us is that he made them at all. This great artist of cinema has influenced great many poets, David Gordon Greene for one, who takes on the role of the producer for Shotgun Stories. The director is Jeff Nichols, and in a way, he seems to be from the same institution Greene is influenced from – Terence Malick. This is his debut effort, and what an effort it is. Pay attention to the word influenced, for these filmmakers – Greene, and now Nichols – reject the generally practiced idea that drives the way images are composed, much like Malick, but in a significantly different visual style. Yes, all of them do challenge and often reject the way most filmmakers surround their characters with an atmosphere that basically reflects their psychological state of mind (a school of thought descendent of the German Expressionism). But where Malick has an unearthly and grand visual style or dare I say flourish, Greene and Nichols strip theirs right down to its bare bones.
Most often the frame serves the purpose of implying. It is agile, and it picks up selective information on our behalf. But imagine a film which doesn’t relay information, but instead takes us on a tour, and leaves us to observe that world for ourselves. Imagine such a narrative, where we aren’t served with motivations, character developments, explanations and back-stories. Imagine people, good people, who do what they do not because they want to do it, but because they have to do it. Shotgun Stories is one such rarity. It doesn’t have any artifice whatsoever, any pretense, or any morality play to it. It isn’t a parable with a moral, but in the best of traditions of moving and often profound stories, it is exactly that – a simple story. So well created that if it was borne out of real life, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.
And as with all well told stories, the ones told by cinema I mean, a complete recital of the tale wouldn’t play a spoiler at all. Not that I would want to divulge anything unnecessary here, but if I were to, even as much as the whole story, it wouldn’t affect the viewing experience. Take my word for it. I watched it around a fortnight back, and was moved, and in a way stirred by it. I wasn’t sure then if that was the way I wanted to write a review, you know, in all the frenzy of my feelings. That would have betrayed an emotion this film doesn’t lend to us, and in its sleepy town, the film discovers a calm minimalism of great truth. I waited, and watched it again, and I found a greater sense of depth. A story, narrated only as an observation with no personal prejudices and with no desire of judging, can often be deep for it is us who have to discover that world.
Now let me tell you about the story a bit.
Son, Kid and Boy are three brothers in a quiet town. Son’s married, and has a kid, and his wife has taken the kid to her mother’s place. Just temporarily, for she is sick of Son’s obsession of perfecting the ‘system’ that exists behind gambling, of somehow deriving a mathematical formula behind its probability. She loves him though, she loves him very much, because these are good people. Everyday people. Son works down at the local fishery. Kid, who works with him, sleeps down in a tent because he has no home and no van, and he has a girlfriend whom he is planning to marry. Boy lives in a van, with his dog Henry, and teaches kids basketball. Their mother lives at a different place.
Now, you might wonder that the names sound odd. But then, you got to wonder about the person who gave them those names. It was their drunkard father, and it is him who causes the other half of the story. Or rather, the set of half-brothers he has brought to this world once he sobered up and settled into a responsible man and married another woman. And left Son, Kid, Boy and their mother. That father has just died, and the abandoned sons learn about it from their mother. It is one of the many great scenes of the film in the way they pan out so quietly and unremarkably, but reveal so much about the family. The brothers are doing what they do in the evening – Son perfecting the system, Boy and Kid watching television – and their mother knocks the door, and tells them that her father has died. They ask her about the funeral, but she asks them to look for it in the newspaper instead. They do, they go, and Son does something in the spur of the moment. He spits on his coffin, and the longstanding feud between the two set of half-brothers is laid on the fire to boil again.
This is where I shall leave the story hanging, but then one ought not to expect something dramatic here. The film is as spare when it ends as it was when it begins. The film isn’t grim, and it doesn’t lend itself any particular tone. It is a film only given to observation, not judgment. This is a film that considers its characters for what they are, considers them people, and understands them. It looks at their actions, and understands them. Yes it feels, often it does, but takes great care not to let that cloud these lives. There’re great many shots of the town – its fields, its roads, the dust blowing – and they aren’t meant to convey, but to evoke. A sense of place, I believe. There’s a scene in the beginning, where Stephen and Michael, the other set of half brothers are reflecting the events that occurred during the funeral. Michael is simmering with rage, and a dark cloud passes over them (one might be reminded of that famous sequence from Bonnie and Clyde), and I would like to choose to believe here that it was a shot of serendipity. Not designed, but just an accident.
There’s terseness overall – in the story, in the way these people speak, in the way they live their lives – and hidden beneath it is a treasure-trove of information. Indie films are usually about a minimalist approach, but often it is a cloak to hide their shortcomings. It is often merely a style, a trick of artifice rather than a choice borne out of sincerity. Not here though, and underneath its simple lines lay a truth that helps us gaze into these people. How else do we know about the people we meet? Often profound drama lay not in greatly constructed sequences, but a simple spoken sentence that often summarizes a whole life. There’s one such here, a statement if you would like to call it that, and seems to erupt from the deepest corner of Son’s heart. It is another great scene, and as the mother is cropping her garden, Son stops his car and gets out of it and walks a couple of steps. He says – “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this.” She doesn’t look back, and he gets into the car and drives away.
Michael Shannon is the only actor here I have previously seen, and it is one of the best performances of the year. It is a coiled, laconic performance but greatly magnetic. There’s a certain strain in his face, and it kinda betrays a sense of inner pain. The other two performances, from Douglas Ligon (Boy) and Barlow Jacobs (Kid) are just as remarkable in the way they reveal so much with a gaze. But then, the objective of these performances isn’t to convey, just as is the case with the film, but to be those people. Everything else will take care of itself. This is such a film, where the images have a certain sense of freedom from their characters, and the film has a certain sense of freedom from its story. A little gem you might say. A film without false moments is a rarity, but a film with so many true ones as this, well, is special.
Note: Here is an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s review. He had selected this film for Ebertfest 2008, and has named it as one of his Top20 of 2008. I believe the following might provide some information, and some more. –
“This film has literally been saved by the festival circuit. After being rejected by major distributors, it found a home in smaller festivals, where word of mouth propelled it into its current wider release. It has qualities that may not come out in a trailer or in an ad but sink in when you have the experience of seeing it. Few films are so observant about how we relate with one another. Few are as sympathetic.”
Source: Roger Ebert’s review of Shotgun Stories, here.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:17 AM