In Shotgun Stories, a mother comes to her son’s doorstep at night to tell him that his father is dead. Pause. Crickets. Son responds, stone-faced, “When’s the funeral?” Pause. Crickets. Mom: “You look in the paper.” Pause. “You goin’?” “No.” Shotgun Stories goes on like that for a mesmerizing 90 minutes. Glorious Southern fried sloth, in epic widescreen.
Dad’s death sets off a feud between the family he neglected and the one he was there for. At the funeral, the stone-faced son, named Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), literally spits on his father’s grave and curses his name. It’s all downhill from there. Son’s middle class brothers from another mother don’t take kindly to the offense, and a series of tense confrontations begins right there over the casket.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols plays everything at half speed, passing the time in a style similar to films directed by his producer, David Gordon Green. Flicks like Green’s All the Real Girls and the recent Snow Angels take their time savoring the eccentrics and beautiful losers who mill about in a tiny shit town. Before all the ruckus, Son and his two brothers cap off their blue collar days with beer, movie trivia and bizarre projects, like Boy’s (Douglas Ligon) attempt to outfit his filthy van with a huge home air conditioner. Also, some mild woman trouble: Kid (Barlow Jacobs) is bursting to marry his sweetheart (Natalie Canerday), despite being so poor he has to pitch a tent in Son’s backyard; Son is trying to patch things up with his wife (Glenda Pannell).
Nichols clearly loves Son and the boys more than the other, relatively prosperous Hayes clan, but his writing shows equal understanding of both. Nobody wants war here, but the dead Hayes patriarch has created such animosity on one side and insecurity on the other that war is inevitable. Beating the war drums is Nichol’s most outlandish creation, the oily troublemaker Shampoo Douglas (G. Allan Wilkins). Greasy-haired, covered in mysterious bandages fixed with duct tape and an eye patch under his plastic glasses, Shampoo occasionally rolls up in his hooptie to instigate fights between the two Hayes families. Along with Peter Lorre, Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs and Chamberlain in The Dark Crystal, Shampoo is one of those iconic screen snakes whose slithering maneuvers you can only grin at in astonishment.
Between Shampoo’s duct tape, Son’s permascowl, yard dogs at magic hour and pastures shrouded by bulging storm clouds, cinematographer Adam Stone has a lot to play with. His anamorphic images feel just heavy and humid enough for this story’s slow roast. Ultimately, Stone is the star, above Shannon, above even Nichol’s textured, downright charismatic screenplay.