Shotgun Stories (2007)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

Shotgun Stories, directed by Jeff Nichols, is one of the best debut films I have ever seen. Few directors have the courage to ignore most film conventions, and the judgement to do so without everyone noticing. This isn't a film about heroes and villains; a battle between good and evil. Rather, it is about two families embroiled in a dispute where everyone is wrong.

The film is about the two families left behind by a recently deceased man. The man's first family shows up at his funeral, and reminds his later family that he had not always been the good man they knew him as. This simple act reignited the hatred that the two families were raised to feel towards one another. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the dispute takes on a life of its own. The transgression in question was committed by a dead man, and the consequences are in the past. Yet, they feel compelled to maintain the feud as a matter of honour.

The story is notable more for its omissions, and false starts than for the actual events. It was far more honest than most films. Scuffles break out, but they typically fizzle out. At least one member of each family wants to end the feud, but their reticence seems to embolden the other family members. It's as though both sides wants to maintain the animosity, but neither wants to take it beyond the occasional shoving match. There is hatred between the two families, but it is not all consuming. Minor incidents lead to further conflicts, but the escalation never seems intentional. It is an untenable equilibrium, and there is a sense of inevitable tragedy.

The passivity of the conflict is underscored by the languid pace of the film. It has a pastoral feel, which is underscored by folkish score, and minimalist dialogue. The characters are painted with an essentialist brush. Whether in their personal lives, or in the feud, they act on impulse. They give little thought to their actions, though they're never in a rush to see them through. Though some viewers may find the pacing too slow, it is hard not to get caught up in the sheer beauty of the film.