Directed by Jeff Nichols
Shotgun Stories is highly melancholic. It’s a story about two warring families more deeply rooted to their past and homes, which seem almost transient, than to anything oriented towards the future. Those families are connected by a father, one who abandoned the first set of brothers and became a better man for the second set. They both live in a small town where they have undoubtedly heard stories about the other family and let the hate fester. When the father dies, old wounds are reopened, and a price is paid.
Michael Shannon plays Son Hayes, the leader of the first ‘family.’ When we meet him, his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell) has left him, so he invites his brothers, Boy and Kid, to move in with him. Kid (Barlow Jacobs) already lives in Son’s yard, in a tent, and Boy (Douglas Ligon), lives in a van. Their lives are far from glamorous, and they feel like characters who could disappear from this world without hardly a trace left behind. Part of this is due to their social class and the world of this story, in one of the many ‘fly over’ states that populate the center of the country. There might be a message here about the hardships of living in such a community where jobs are hard to come by, but the story focuses on the very personal bonds and conflicts between these brothers and the other Hayes family.
Son is silent, often reserved, but something beats inside of him, something sinister. He’s glued to the past, stating his hatred for his father as well as his mother. He seems to have no love for anyone other than whom he would consider his own, his brothers, his wife and his son. But when he tells his brothers that Annie left him, he does so with a heavy detachment that suggests he doesn’t care, isn’t surprised she left him or thinks he deserves it. Seeing as how he has heavy scarring on his back from a shotgun blast that might resemble, symbolically, the lashes on Jesus’ back, it’s easy to see Son as a sacrificial character. As long as his family is safe, he’s happy, but you wouldn’t know it. I guess he’s like a lion, and you can only tell what he’s feeling when his claws are bared.
When their mom tells them, with the same kind of detachment, that their father died, she does so potentially knowing that this will set them off. The three brothers go to the funeral, tell the second Hayes family that Son’s father was not a good man, and then Son spits on the casket. This doesn’t go over well with Son’s step brothers: Cleaman, Mark, Stephen and John.
The latter set of brothers were raised by a different man than the one who raised Son, Boy and Kid. Where their father was once a drunk asshole, he became a sober Christian for his new family, though judging by the latter Hayes’ proclivity for violence, he probably didn’t do such a great job.
Over the course of the second and third acts, the brothers will clash a few times, leaving Kid and Mark dead. A later act of violence puts Son in a coma and Boy in a neck brace, his face battered and swollen.
There are some smaller storylines within the violence, notably about Boy’s reluctance to fight before he becomes the most important and even confrontational character in the third act. There is also a quiet subplot about Cleaman’s efforts to subdue this conflict, and the growing instability and recklessness of one of the younger brothers, Stephen.
But through the violence, the one common denominator is that there is no good versus evil. the conflict is incredibly murky. On one hand, we seem to see Son, arguably our hero of the film, start the war by showing up unnecessarily and putting on a show by metaphorically pissing on a dead man’s grave. But it’s hard to say that, as Son himself says, this wasn’t started a long time ago, before the plot of the movie began. Son proves to be a character who has a hard time turning himself ‘off,’ in the sense that he reacts more than he can independently act. So assuming his father was as bad as he seemed to be, Son was already on his way to making a scene at the funeral, leading to everything that happened. It’s hard to say how and when Son as he is in the film was created. It’s not just a nature versus nurture thing, it might also be the effect of his mother versus father in their lives. Maybe Son’s father wasn’t as bad as he thinks, and his mother, whom he says made him and his brothers hate the second family, created the monstrous fire within him, as if he was a wolf on a leash, and she she merely untied the leash.
From the very start of the film, the recurring guitar riff that carries us through the quieter moments between the violence is incredibly melancholic. It creates a feeling of inevitability, as if no one makes a choice in this film that wasn’t already made for them. At the end of act two, Son’s decision to go back and ‘finish’ this war isn’t really his decision, though he might think it is. It’s something that was conditioned into him years ago. He’s working through things that have, in some ways, already happened and are already in motion. It’s like a kid who’s already halfway down a slide and at that exact moment decides to go down the slide. You don’t get it kid, you’re already on your way down.
So if this this film is about fate versus… free will, I guess it sides with fate. But the “fate” in this story isn’t divine in any way. It’s merely programmed into the boys. The real push and pull is between past and future, as Son, even with a kid of his own, looks to correct the uncorrectable past, while seemingly ignoring his own child and the effects his actions have on that child. Ultimately he gives up the fight, presumably led by Boy’s example, and the film ends with separate, tender vignettes of family life. Son, Boy and his actual son, Carter hang out on the porch, taking in the summer evening, and Cleaman embraces his younger brother John, before sending him off to school.
At the end of the day, these are just two separate tribes. Neither is good or bad, they’re just trying to look our for each other but through primal, ill-advised methods which were programmed into them at a young age. Another way of looking at this film is through someone like Cleaman’s eyes. Except for the fact that Mark, Cleaman’s brother, killed Boy’s dog, it’s easy to see the former Hayes brothers as the more villainous side to this war. It’s just that we receive the story through their eyes, and, again, the latter set of brothers kill a dog, so in movie logic that makes them a little more easy to root against.
Another, quieter character in this film is Shampoo who is basically the devil on the shoulder. He’s a long-haired, aimless youth with a giant bandage wrapped around his head throughout the film. He keeps bothering Kid, asking to park his car on his property (which is Son’s property), and it might be because Kid says no that Shampoo fans the flames, often saying something that directly leads into the next escalation of conflict. Shampoo has no meaningful connection to the characters other than to show up and announce something that the brothers didn’t know, which always drives them to be more vengeful than before.
Shampoo tells Kid about Mark killing Boy’s dog, leading directly to the scene in which Kid and Mark kill each other, and then Shampoo tells Son and Boy that Mark’s brothers were present when Kid was killed, which they didn’t realize. Before Son tells Boy that he will try to ‘finish’ this war, he tells him that he can’t stop thinking about what Shampoo said.
These are characters who all seem to be armed and ready, but they need an excuse to fight, and other characters really initiate things by giving them that reason. It’s a little bit of Son’s father, his mother and Shampoo too. They are all pit bulls pulling against their leash, and these other characters let them go.
It’s unwise to draw any general conclusions about the types of people in this story or the world presented in this story… but the feeling of Shotgun Stories is kind of like the wild west. There is a cop in one scene who shows up to break up a fight but does nothing further, and everything else is decided by the two warring sides, as if they are the final authority on who wins and loses. And the two Hayes families don’t stand out from the other people in this world. I’m sure, based on the culture and location, a lot of the people in this town own guns, and there is an impression that people are quicker to pull the trigger than to think rationally. Granted, this is a movie with ‘shotgun’ in the title in which no one is shot. Well, the only person is Son, but he was shot likely years before the events of this movie start.
The “shotgun stories,” then, seems to refer more to the rumored stories that are thrown around in regards to Son’s wound. People gossip that he was shot following an attempted robbery or when he was found in bed with a married woman. But as Boy later tells Annie, this conflict wouldn’t be the first time Son was shot trying to protect them. Even though we don’t know the specifics of his wound, we know enough.
The ‘shotgun stories’ refers to the rumors, gossip, and the way stories can change from person to person, like in a game of telephone. All of the conflict in this film come from stories passed from person to person, like the shotgun story. They are passed from father Hayes to his kids, presumably in both families, from Son’s mother to him and his brothers and finally from Shampoo to the original Hayes brothers. Shampoo’s character is thus, likely a symbol for the theme of the film.