There's a fine line between accurately depicting underclass Southern life and descending to "rednexploitation," and Jeff Nichols' debut feature, Shotgun Stories, dances precariously on that line. The movie features a lot of men living in pup tents in their brothers' backyards, and margaritas mixed in blenders hooked up to car batteries, and conversations about how it's nice to take a date to a buffet restaurant, because it's "special." But Shotgun Stories is also well-plotted, with a strong lead performance by Michael Shannon, and a fair amount of authentic regional flavor. It isn't really meant to be a treatise on Southern life. At heart, it's a country-fried genre film, minus the peppery white gravy.
Shannon plays the oldest of three brothers, all of whom were abandoned by their drunken father when they were young. (Dad's lack of commitment to his family is reflected in the names he stuck them with: "Son," "Kid," and "Boy.") When the old man dies, Shannon crashes the funeral and spits on the casket, angering his more middle-class stepmother and four half-brothers. Resentments fester, then spill over, and soon a bloody feud develops between the two sides of the bloodline. Nichols keeps the escalating violence mostly offscreen; instead, he dwells on the quiet moments before and afterward, when the characters sit and stew. Can they back down from this fight? Can they trust the other side to back down? And can you kill a man while his kids—your nephews—are running around in the backyard?
Shotgun Stories is a curious mix of rural lyricism in the David Gordon Green/Victor Nuñez mold, and macho bluster in the Billy Jack/Walking Tall mold. If it leaned a little heavier on one side or the other, the movie might be a little more successful—although it's hardly a failure as it is. Nichols' only real problem is that his filmmaking is too reserved and tasteful, given the pulpy subject matter. Still, it's clear that this Arkansas native knows his own home, judging by the Lucero songs on the soundtrack, and all the conversations about Razorback basketball and gambling at Tunica. In the end, Shotgun Stories' blood feud isn't between two sets of brothers, but between different standards of Southern manhood. College-educated or callus-handed, everyone's expected to pick up a gun when the action heats up. And all the while, perched on the porch, the next generation is watching.