Without Michael Shannon holding down Shotgun Stories with his glowering presence, the whole affair would practically blow right by without leaving much hint of its passing. The feature writing and directing debut of Jeff Nichols, the film hangs about in the quiet streets of and empty spaces surrounding a small Arkansas town where an ugly divorce has set two families at war with each other. At the start, both sides seem part ready to get on with their lives and part unable to, just aching for the leash to be let off. Although there's violence and tragedy deeply etched into the landscape here, Nichols' penchant for minimal acting and general quietude puts a damper on the proceedings without bringing much new to an old story.
Shannon, a theatre actor of uncommon ability who's slowly been making his mark in film (World Trade Center, Bug), plays Son, the head of the more dissolute side of the Hayes family. His father, a mean son of a bitch by all accounts, left Son and his two brothers, Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), for another woman years ago. Mrs. Hayes didn't seem like too good a mother, as all three of her kids are damaged to one degree or another. Son's girlfriend keeps leaving, due to his gambling habit (to which he memorably replies with one of his few lines: "It's not gambling, it's a system"). Kid sleeps in a tent in Son's backyard. Boy is just an arrested-development wreck, living in his van and waiting for the school year to start again so he can get back to teaching basketball.
Meanwhile, the other Hayes boys—uppity churchgoers in comparison—are sparked into action after Mr. Hayes passes away and his estranged children show up at the funeral. Son spits out some carefully chosen and hateful words about the old man; next thing you know, there's a feud. Fortunately, though, at no point in what follows does Nichols ever descend to the ripe clichés just begging to be picked here, what with the Southern-flavored small-town feudin' and fussin'. Even as the two sides begin to notch up the hostilities, a beating here, a stabbing there, Shotgun Stories remains a sober and clearheaded film.
David Gordon Green serves as producer (Nichols’ cinematographer shot second unit on several of Green’s films), and his presence is certainly felt in Nichols' tendency towards quiet and contemplative shots of the wide-open and serene southeastern Arkansas landscape. Nichols has a similarly light-handed touch with his actors, with almost all of the naturalistic performances keeping low to the ground. Shannon is the welcome exception here, though quietly so, his burning and baleful visage casting a nearly biblical wrath as the two halves of the Hayes clan blunder into tragedy.
Shotgun Stories deserves credit for its credible and non-stereotypical narrative of rural vendetta. But there's no escaping the fact that the film, well-crafted though it may be, is ultimately just as slow as the proverbial molasses.