Jeff Nichols’s debut feature arrives with all the right credentials needed by any wannabe breakout indie production; festival play, various awards and nominations, even a respected critic proclaiming its virtues (Roger Ebert included the film in his 2008 Ebertfest, an annual festival dedicated to underseen or underappreciated films). And to be sure, the film is a serious, well-intentioned one. If only it weren’t so boring.
Attending his father’s Arkansas funeral, Son (Michael Shannon, so good in William Friedkin’s Bug, but with little to do but brood existentially here) spits on the grave, which quickly sets off a feud between him and his half-brothers (born to Dad by another woman). Before long, Son’s two brothers Boy and Kid (those names just scream pseudo-profundity, don’t they?) are also drawn into the conflict, matters escalate, tragedy ensues and we all learn that revenge is a Bad Thing. That’s about it for plot. There’s a lot of sitting around on porches though.
Ultimately, what we have here is nothing but a homage to (pre-Pineapple Express) David Gordon Green. Now, I’m no great fan of Green, and had a similarly-allergic reaction to the whimsical pretension of his debut George Washington, but hell, at least no one else was stealing from Terence Malick when he started doing it. Now Nichols is ripping off Gordon ripping off Malick and I’m thinking the old boy must be due a few royalties. And the snake doesn’t stop swallowing its own tail there. Turns out Nichols is now going to shoot a script by – yes! – David Gordon Green. The fun those two fellas must have when they hang out. I’ll bet they quote Badlands at each other all day.
There is something to be said for the film’s subtlety, I suppose (for instance, the expected violence hinted at by the title all happens offscreen). But even that decision just feels so damn tasteful, adding to the slightly-suffocating prestige feel of the whole production. At least when Roger Corman used to churn out Hicksploitation movies back in the 70s, you were guaranteed a few cheap thrills, Corman always being careful to keep the boobs/bullets quotient healthy. Bloody Mama is no one’s idea of great cinematic art, but I appreciated the fact that it didn’t make me feel like I’d been mainlining Night Nurse. Shotgun Stories on the other hand is what they euphemistically call “deliberately-paced”, all pauses and taciturnity and artful long shots. That needn’t be a problem if a film is atmospheric or complex enough to sustain a slow burn approach, but the material here is so simple that it can’t hold up under the weight, and what you end up with is akin to a gilded frame being put around a fortune cookie proverb.
Because yes, the film sure looks pretty, and you certainly can’t fault the craft of the cast and crew involved. No doubt it’s one from the heart, and it’s hard to condemn people going out there and telling their own non-Hollywood stories their own way. But sometimes it starts to feel as though too many US indies can be as formulaic as your average blockbuster. There’s really nothing new here, and even by second hand standards, some of the goods on sale are starting to look a bit frayed around the edges. Next time out, Nichols might benefit from being slightly less well-behaved and getting his hands a bit dirtier. Maybe he can follow Green’s example again and make a Seth Rogan comedy too. It’d have to be more fun than this.