Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pre-Countdown Special: SHOTGUN STORIES

Early June in Seattle means one thing to me: SIFF (the Seattle International Film Festival, to the uninitiated). I've been completely hooked since my first SIFF back in 2005. Given a chance to see a grip of films before they officially hit theatres, and a handful which might never see U.S. distribution at all, I simply cannot resist.

So it stood to reason that I would find myself sitting in the darkened downstairs auditorium of the Harvard Exit theatre on the afternoon of June 13, 2007 (my last afternoon as a 21-Year-Old, incidentally). I was one of maybe 20 people in attendance for a film which I nearly decided to skip altogether. 92 minutes after the lights had gone down, the movie was over and I was in awe. I had just seen what, up to that point, was undoubtedly the best film of 2007. That film was called Shotgun Stories.

Because I saw Shotgun Stories in 2007, I included it on my "Best of '07" list. But now that the 2008 film year has come to a close, Shotgun Stories is cropping up on a number of "Best of '08" list. Why, you ask? A technicality, of course; why else do things happen? Shotgun Stories received its criminally limited "theatrical release" on March 26, 2008 so, technically, it's a 2008 film. What does this mean to you and me? It means that I'm going to plug this great movie one more time.

"Tell me more about this Shotgun Stories, Colin." Okay, fans, I will.

Shotgun Stories revolves around a feud between two sets of Arkansan half-brothers. Both broods are the offspring of one man, but were born of two different mothers. The film follows one of these sets: an impoverished trio of brothers who were abandoned by their father at a young age and left to be raised by a resentful mother. Their counterparts knew the same deadbeat dad to be a true and good father; they are the family he chose to keep when he left his other sons in the lurch.

The film's plot hinges on said mutual-father's death. At the film's outset, our protagonistic trio learns from their still cold-hearted mother that their flake of a father is dead. They drop in on his funeral uninvited and share their bitter memory of the man with the family who loved him. A scrum naturally erupts between the rival clans and an unfortunate chain of events is set in motion.

The heartrending downward spiral this film follows must be seen to be properly understood; suffice it to say that you'll be neither bored nor at peace with the way it all goes down.

Shotgun Stories is one of the most "American" movies I've ever seen. I'd compare it favorably with influential New Hollywood classics like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Like those fine films, Shotgun Stories explores the all-too-often destructive force of American masculinity (among other things). It's not a subtle or shy film, by any means, but it's not unrealistic either. The film grants you admission to the lives of a bunch of poor white Southerners trying to do right by themselves, even if proving one's worth means tearing families apart (one's own included).

I cannot put into words the many things this film has to say, so I'll stop trying. What I will say is that it's an incredible achievement for first-time director Jeff Nichols. He deserves so much more credit than he has received. And the acting in this film is unbelievable. The film features a number of fine performances from actors both professional and non-professional (including some wonderful work by a Little Rock punk rocker by the name of Alan Disaster; he plays Shampoo in the movie).

But this movie belongs to Michael Shannon's Son Hayes, the eldest of the abandoned brothers. Son is the film's somewhat enigmatic, undeniably tragic lead and no one could have owned this role the way Shannon owns this role. The dude was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Revolutionary Road, a role in which his character does a fair bit of talking (and yelling) despite minimal screen-time. Well Son Hayes has the vast majority of Shotgun Stories' screen-time all to himself, but Shannon often needs say nary a word to communicate what's on Son's mind. It's easily one of the best acting performances I've seen in years, if not ever. Michael Shannon's performance alone makes this film worth a watch.

But the movie also features great music, beautiful photography, terrific writing...the list goes on. Shotgun Stories is a complete film which must be seen to be fully appreciated. Which brings me to the most vital point in this post.

I encouraged many people to see this movie during its too-short theatrical run, but precious few were able to make it happen. But fear not, dear fans, for the miracle of home video has come to the rescue. That's right, Shotgun Stories is finally on DVD. So skip down to Scarecrow, bump it to the tip-top of your NetFlix of Blockbuster queue, or just buy the thing outright! I don't care what it takes, so long as you see this movie. I am confident that you will be captivated, moved, hurt, heartened, etc, etc, etc.
If you hadn't guessed it by now, I love this film, and not for no reason. Don't you want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself? Oh, yeah: you're welcome.

PS: Check out the song "Decoration Day" by Drive-By Truckers for a great companion piece to Shotgun Stories. Even director Jeff Nichols acknowledged it as a big influence on the story.

[Countdown starts tomorrow at #9! Get psyched!]

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