This movie is not “a point-blank buckshot blast of American rage”. So why say it? Why is it we lambaste hyperbole in patently paid-for big budget movie reviews, but overlook the same hyperbole when it’s applied to low budget crap? Yes, yes – low budget movies need good reviews if they’re to find an audience. I’m fine with that. But movies like Shotgun Stories are not good; they’re just low budget. And saying Shotgun Stories is “a high calibre thriller that’s an explosive debut” is bullshit. This is a movie where if you took the word “yeah” out of the script and forbid the cast to look at things meaningfully… NOTHING WOULD F—ING HAPPEN.
We’re in Arkansas. Everything speaks of poverty. Three brothers named Son, Boy and Kid attend their father’s funeral. Only, they aren’t the ones who’ve organised the funeral. That’s been done by their father’s other four sons; the ones from his second marriage. Son, Boy and Kid are the sons abandoned by their daddy. They resent him. Son makes a speech at the funeral where he instructs his step-brothers in who their father really was. His step-brothers ain’t happy. A feud begins. The eldest son from the second marriage thinks Son ought to be taught a lesson. Given the word “shotgun” is in the title; this ain’t likely to be an elocution lesson.
If this movie wasn’t so strenuously muted, it could be dramatic with that premise. Blood feuds, angry brothers… The Bible would have known what to do with this story. But we’re in indie country. Worse yet: we’re in a serious indie. And that means all the drama is internal. Even when a fight breaks out in a parking lot; you’d best prepare yourself for off-screen action, and people staring at nothing… faces like sheet metal, standing in barren interiors, lips mouthing the same few inchoate words over and over: “yeah”, “naw”, “yep”, “uh-huh”, all life reduced to a Raymond Carver skit, which really, really doesn’t work unless it’s on paper.
Michael Shannon plays the same glowering hick he does in a lot of movies. There’s a bit more going on internally this time, but honestly, by the forty-fifth “yeah” “naw” meaningfully-stare-at-nothing scene, you could give a shit. Shannon’s got one of those faces that look mean even when he’s ecstatic, and he’s got the build of a serial killer. He fits right in here. His character, Son, is the one most like his sumbitch father, and the one most aware of it. And to give Shannon his due, the scene where he tells his brother, Boy: “that’s the last fight you ever stay out of” has a hypnotic, turbid brutality that the rest of Shotgun Stories could sorely use.
It isn’t that I mind a lack of drama. But I hate when a movie avoids drama because a director thinks absence has profundity. True, I’m of the unabashed school, and I’d rather mistaken hysteria than mistaken cool. But Shotgun Stories is so nakedly a certain kind of indie movie that I can’t resist disparaging it. I’m reminded of a short humour piece called “Jim Jarmusch’s Notes for a Ghostbusters Sequel” (you can read it at: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2005/9/28pendarvis.html) Bill Murray moves into haunted apartment. Sits in chair, impassive. What is he thinking? Possibly about dead friends. He almost gets up. He doesn’t. His face is blank, unreadable. Sounds offscreen. Flying plates? Bleeding walls? Ghosts? Perhaps. We never find out. Slow fade to black. Why do we watch this kind of movie?!
It’s like Tom Waits. Everybody knows they’d look more intelligent – more bohemian – if they liked Tom Waits. And a lot of us do like him as an actor, or an interviewee. But no-one truly likes his music. You might kid yourself and try to listen through another beaten-about-the-larynx ballad, but you don’t really like Tom Waits. It’s the same with po-faced indie dramas. And everything ever made by Robert Bresson. These movies don’t want to give to you; they want your intellectual approval. Critics, supposedly, have to praise these movies or the world will end. But why punish yourself? Boredom doesn’t have to equal a torpid mind. Sometimes, boredom is honest.