The sun rises on an East Arkansas cotton field, the early light on the white puffs casually poetic. Inside, Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) dresses slowly. When he turns his back to the camera — which waits patiently outside his bedroom door — he reveals a scattering of shotgun pellet scars. How he got his scars remains something of a mystery throughout Shotgun Stories, though his coworkers gossip and guess about it occasionally, asserting that he was caught with another man’s wife or he was robbing a liquor store. However it happened, the wounding marks Son’s manhood, his survival of some harrowing ritual.
As Shotgun Stories begins, Son is going through another kind of ritual: his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) has left, taking their young son Carter (Cole Hendrixson) to her mother’s. It’s because he won’t stop gambling, Son says, though he refuses to admit that’s what he’s doing. He’s got a system, he insists, which he works on for hours, counting cards and writing down lists, imagining that he’ll break open the secret of winning, and then he’ll be able to provide for his family, like a man is supposed to do. The problem for Son, though he won’t talk about it, is that he hasn’t had much of role model for parenting or supporting: his own father left him, his two brothers, and their mother, when the children were young — and they have never forgiven him.
Though none of the boys, now young men, talks about it, they all bear burdens of rejection and rage. The fact that their father stayed in tow, got religion and married another woman with whom he had four more sons, hardly helps. When Son’s mother (Natalie Canerday) comes by his house one evening to announce their father has died, she looks simultaneously furious and indifferent. “You can look in the paper” for the funeral’s date and time, she mutters, turning away. “You going?” Son asks, the camera looking slightly down on her from his narrow doorway. “No,” she says, as if the single syllable is an effort.
Son and his brothers, Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), consider their mother the curse to which their dad condemned them when he left. And her most salient effect has been hatred: they hate their father and his new family. At the funeral, Son says a few things “This is the same man who ran out on us left us to be raised by a hateful woman and made out like we were never born”), igniting reciprocal resentment in the other kids, a seeming posse who have been granted their born-again, now-dead dad’s cotton and soybean farm, complete with tractors, hoes, and other emblems of masculine conviction. Though Cleaman (Michael Abbott Jr.), who bears the father’s name, is inclined to let pass the comments made by his essentially nameless, blatantly disinherited half-brother, his younger siblings — Mark (Travis Smith), Stephen (Lynnsee Provence), and John (David Rhodes) — believe the rejects must be taught respect.
While the plot has been set on a predictably violent trajectory, the look of Jeff Nichols’ film maintains the subtle precision of its opening images. Co-produced by David Gordon Green and shot by Adam Stone (who previously shot Great World of Sound), the movie is at once acutely regional and expansive, contemplative and roiling. Brief, still images offer the desolate details of the brothers’ frustrations and desires, whether the riverbed on which Boy has parked his van (where he tries to run an air conditioner out of the cigarette lighter) or the tent Kid has pitched in Son’s backyard (when Annie leaves, Son invites both his brothers to move in, temporarily, telling Boy he can use the VCR if he brings Doritos). Sitting on a curb as the camera observes them, distant and still, Son laments, “This is one empty ass town.” As they look out on the street, a train whistle sounds in the faraway background, punctuating their immobility.
Still, each brother seeks his center: Boy works with a high school basketball team, devising plays on his chalkboard, framed in a long shot as he sits cross-legged beside his beloved dog Henry; Kid contemplates marriage with Cheryl (Coley Canpany), who brings him hamburgers for lunch and then watches him eat. And Son, he does understand the anxiety his search for a “system” causes Annie, and he means to set it right, even though it flies in the face of what he most believes to be true, that he can figure it out. When Annie sends Carter to go fishing with his dad, bearing a bag of sandwiches marked “For my boys!”, Son is moved: “She just wants me to stop screwing around, bring home that paycheck, be happy making 20 grand a year,” he sighs. It’s not the system he wants to join in, but he knows what it means.
The inevitable violence points to the other system in place, based in how men act and are expected to act, and their apparent lack of options. While the brothers with names and property see their kin as crude (“Like a pack of dogs,” grumbles Mark, “Can’t expect a dog to have manners”), the less fortunate sons resent the interlopers’ presumption of privilege. During an unexpected run-in at a gas station, Son and Kid immediately step up, Carter watching wide-eyed as his dad pounds and falls and tussles. When a police cruiser pulls up, sending the combatants in opposite directions, the child watches again, as his uncles and father argue over what “happened back there,” Kid especially peeved that Boy held back, pulling Henry back from the fracas. Kid is especially upset,
While the fight extends into other encounters, the film doesn’t linger on the actual violence. Instead, you see a second-long shot of a punch, a knife, a body knocked to the ground. The point is not any single brutal act, but the consequences, devastating and, at last, visible as part of a system that might be broken. It’s in Carter, at last, as well as Cleaman’s children, that the fighters find their most important effects.