The concept of revenge permeates popular fiction, often resulting in some form of self-redemption that eases one’s bottled rage and hostility. Throughout the history of cinema, audiences have typically travelled on this journey alongside the enraged protagonist, awaiting their moment of triumph with excited anticipation. Taking note of this narrative trend, first-time writer-director Jeff Nichols presents a film in which two distinctly related groups desire revenge on each other.
Set against the backdrop of rural Arkansas, Shotgun Stories follows an escalating feud between two sets of half-brothers who differ in every way save for one side of their parental heritage. We are first introduced to Son, Boy and Kid Hayes, born to a drunk father who didn’t have the dignity to give his offspring names and rejected by a mother who was too bitter to care for them. The father, who left the family home only to clean up, find God and start a new life, fathered four more sons who were given real names and the upbringing they deserved. When both sets of brothers hear of their father’s death and are brought together at the funeral, their previously harboured hostilities are revealed and escalate as each side makes their next move.
Taking what is an interesting premise, Nichols crafts a story that unfortunately lacks compelling characterisation. While his aim is clearly to demonstrate how revenge ultimately has no victors, each set of brothers are given few qualities that distinguish them from one another, to the extent where you don’t really care who receives the next inevitable strike. While the poorer, unkempt brothers are given more screen time, the film focusing on their bid to divulge the dark secrets of their father’s previous life, they are equally as unlikable as their more affluent siblings, who are dead set on upholding his clean image.
The film does have redeeming qualities, particularly in the way Nichols characterises the landscape through the narrative, creating a sense of the vast and ghostly nature of Southern Arkansas. However, next to this year’s giants No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, which also deal with masculine themes within a dusty, rural America, Shotgun Stories pales in comparison.