Little Rock native Jeff Nichols plants his debut film, Shotgun Stories, in a particularly slow patch of southeastern Arkansas, in a drive-by town. Slow, except, of course, for the cycle of vengeance that grinds up three brothers named Son, Kid, and Boy — the abandoned half of a born-again alcoholic’s brood. After Son spits on the old man’s coffin at his funeral, the trio trade tit-for-tat scuffles and worse with their better-off yeoman half-brothers. Despite the mythic ring, the drama of Shotgun Stories is resolutely ordinary; Nichols arranges scenes in even blocks, punctuated by shots of fields or telephone poles dominoed into the distance.
This dead-air evenness is the movie’s strength, utterly relentless, as well as its weakness. With all that time to inspect the characters — Son separated from wife and kid, almost-engaged semi-doofus Kid, and van-man schlub Boy — their stoicism is revealed to be the director’s single move. Shark-eyed Michael Shannon, the panic-inducing paranoid of last year’s Bug, stands about clenched and brooding as Son, a fish-farm grunt and aspiring card-counter.
But though Shannon commands wary attention in a way well-suited to Son’s feeling of duty as eldest sib, he bows to the limitations of the script, which poses as masculine-terse but is draped with exposition and founders on irritating false notes. A gossipy pot dealer with a head bandage and clunky glasses rumbles around the (seemingly deserted) town as the primary plot advancer; Boy has a broken radio that cuts in and out of the same power-ballad tape, completely out of his control, in what is perhaps a metaphor; Kid and Boy “bond” with trivia quizzes. “Measured” or “brave,” Shotgun Stories really most feels like a defensive crouch.
Opens March 26 at IFC Center