A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today, we kick off the series with a consideration of Jeff Nichols’ 2007 debut film, Shotgun Stories.
I carry this memory of crouching into the floor of the backseat of my uncle’s car while he retrieved a four-way lug wrench from his trunk to beat a man for calling his daughter a slut. I was maybe four years old then, but I still know the exact dusty wide spot on the narrow country backroad where the confrontation occurred. I can recall not understanding the instigating insult, but the memory tangled so tightly in my sub-conscious that when I would learn what the word “slut” meant years later, this moment would be the first thing I thought of. I do not, however, remember if I was told to duck below the window level by my uncle’s only half-alarmed wife or if I did so out of recognition of the moment’s violence, which, I do remember, was making me tremble nervously.
Everything else I would learn about this uncle, every other memory I have of him—the way he would wear his plaid dress shirts with the sleeves ripped off and the top four buttons undone, the way he was the quietest of all of my dad’s twelve siblings, the way he would blow his horn when he drove his coal truck past my house, or the way he was my dad’s go to mechanic for any exceptionally perplexing engine problem and our necessary consultant for any used car purchase—is underscored by this memory of a single episode of violence.
For my entire life, I have known men like the men portrayed in Jeff Nichols’ uniquely American tragedy Shotgun Stories.
From the movie’s opening shots, Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) is shown as a man who has known violence and abandonment as a means of conflict resolution. He walks around his house shirtless, the camera careful to catch the faded buckshot scars on his back in the dull sunlight pushing through curtains as he walks around and measures his wife’s absence by way of empty drawers and a simple note. He does not give any appearance of being bothered.
The film moves from its cold open into shots of Southern cotton fields, an image forever burdened with the dark history of American sins, and amber waves of grain. Nichols opens his film with a quiet proclamation of its American-ness, a very contemporary sense of subdued meanness, scarred by spiteful injury, and built upon a nation with a history of hate and resentment that has gone unspoken for too long.
All of this scored with the embittered twang of strings composed by Ben Nichols of Lucero fame (incidentally, the director’s brother), whose music here helps paint the Hayes family as both victims to and perpetrators of systems of senseless and spiteful violence.
That’s the true exceptionalism of Nichols’ first feature. Son and his brothers Kid and Boy (played respectively by Barlow Jacobs and Douglas Limon) sit at the forefront of Nichols’ directorial debut, a sort of Southeastern Arkansas version of muted Shakespearian Theater. By virtue of narrative position, framing technique, and the fact that Son is played by the only immediately recognizable face in the cast, it becomes easy to think of these three brothers as good guys, but Nichols’ film is too honest to be that easy in categorization of its characters’ personhood.
Because none of the characters in Shotgun Stories asks for anything from the viewer, because none are subjected to characterization devices more complex than having been modeled sincerely after real person types from Nichols’ native Arkansas, the three scorned Hayes boys can be viewed as morally flawed but not morally ruined, wrong but not villainous, unheroic but still protagonists.
We see Son’s ethical imperfection early, when, after not even flinching at the departure of his wife and child, he continues trying to learn the system to game black jack dealers, the same shady scheme (and, not to mention, reckless parenting plan) that drove his family out of his house.
We discover Boy as seriously lacking in ambition—living in a van with an air conditioner rigged to a cigarette lighter, trying to sustain a life that only requires seasonal employment as a basketball coach—and Kid as an aimless mess who, prior to the departure of Son’s wife, lives in a tent in his brother’s front yard, keeps the company of a whispering meth-head minstrel by the name of Shampoo, and has perhaps the most cocksure and hair trigger temper of all of the men in the central blood feud.
But these are just minute details compared to the cardinal act of sin that triggers the events of the film. It’s Son’s inability to let go of his own damage, his insistence on a spiteful expression of figurative violence that ultimately results in the explosion of familial warfare. His attendance of his father’s funeral is, in and of itself, a selfish and mean idea. His speech is an expression of mindlessly vengeful hate.
And thereafter, every moment of escalating altercation, any moment in which words become fists or worst (with the exception of the transplanted snake), is instigated by either Son, Kid, or Boy.
These brothers are not out-and-out good men. But they are not definitionally bad people, either. Because Nichols so gracefully balances the line between heroes and protagonists, between empathy and exoneration, and between sympathetic and pitiable, the aim of his movie moves from measuring action and event to measuring motivation. Why are these sympathetic brothers, these brothers who we want to see be good, so fixated on pushing more violence?
The first step in any useful answer to this question likely starts with the calculation of the trio’s financial worth. Son gives an explicit dollar value to his salary ($20,000) when he explains his ambition to do better than his work at the fish farm. (His regretful remembrance of having once been able to divide complicated numbers in his head is one of the most crushing lines in the entire film.) Nichols makes it clear that the younger siblings are even less financially stable through their adoration of Son and through framing of their tent and van homesteads.
“If I owned this town, I’d sell it,” Boy says as the three quietly sit on a desolate corner. “You don’t own the square root of shit,” Kid shoots back, jokingly.
But the true measure of disenfranchisement goes beyond the oppressive socio-economic weight of the brothers’ poverty. They are almost literally and certainly figuratively orphans. Son speaks directly of abandonment at his father’s funeral before spitting on the coffin and igniting the rage of his four half brothers, the more stable and financially fortunate family started by his father after he left his essentially unnamed children. The mother who raised Son, Kid, and Boy is described, in multiple instances and languages, as a hateful woman. Son explains the distinction explicitly, but we observe it in the way Kid looks alarmed at her presence when he answers the door as she arrives to deliver the news of their father’s death and in the way she disappears just as quickly into the night without a word of comfort. Late in the film, Boy asks Shampoo to teach him how to put together a shotgun. “Nobody ever took you huntin’?,” Shampoo asks, and anyone from rural America can detect the sense of tragedy in this simple question.
The entire film informs a presumption that the three of them were left to raise themselves, using only their strength and scorn. Outside of the familial skirmishes and their romantic partners, only two other residents of the town speak to any of the three men: the aforementioned Shampoo, wrapped in bandages from his meth lab fire and looking for a place to hide his car, and Son’s boss.
At one point, Cleaman, the most rational of all of the Hayes brothers played by Michael Abbott Jr., describes his bastard half-brothers as being like a pack of dogs. The language is all too familiar to me. Growing up in a lower class town, I had heard this sort of description assigned undeservedly to young men before.
I was raised with boys like the boys in Shotgun Stories.
On the stretch of road where I grew up in the backwoods, there were three brothers named Tommy, Timmy, and Toby whose father drank excessively, disappeared for days, leaving them to wander in and out of town at their own will or stay at home to be raised by their tough-as-nails mother (who wasn’t afraid to beat her husband down right in the middle of the near traffic-less road that sliced through our neighborhood.). They were uncannily strong kids and mean as hell. When the dozen or so other kids from the area met to play football in the field surrounding the closed down schoolhouse, having two of these brothers on the same team meant having an unfair advantage. Something about the wildness of their upbringing just made them rougher than us. Through my entire childhood, certain neighbors and classmates would describe them as feral children. I’ve always thought that was a bit unfair.
I can’t recall them ever doing anything malicious to anyone else, though I can remember them fighting one another rather viciously. I also remember when Timmy stood to punch a dent in the wall of our school bus to defend his brother Tommy. “He ain’t no fuckin’ bastard,” he yelled before making the bus driver pull over so he could walk the last eight miles home. No one tried to stop him. He was in the tenth grade then, but he would drop out of school after that. Both of his brothers had already quit.
Today, Toby, the oldest, has found a woman and joined the church, starting a home in some holler somewhere. Twins Timmy and Toby both work for the sawmills when they can, but both have been involved in skidder accidents. Timmy toppled a skidder he was operating over the side of a mountain and Tommy had his lower body run over by one, leaving him lucky to survive but walking stiffly like a man twice his age. Tommy still lives across a trout stream from my parents in a trailer with a tarp for a roof and no heating source. In the winter, he crosses the creek to borrow the heat of my parents’ house and my mom gives him food and coffee if he’s not uncomfortably drunk from self-medication.
Perhaps this is why Shotgun Stories has resonated with me so deeply since its release; it tells the story of the America I know best, of the people who exist hopelessly in the dark jagged cracks of America’s broken promises, those who still abide by the terms and conditions of that symbolic deal long ago nullified by our nation’s greedier intent. These people work hard, they’re loyal to and protective of family, but they can’t make up the ground of their country leaving them behind and they can’t shed the violence and hate that was always there in the fine print. They are just trying their best with what they’ve been given.
Nichols captures this unrewarded resilience multiple times in his film. We see Son at work immediately after his wife leaves, when he finds out about the death of his father, and when his brother is stabbed to death in a fight outside of a bar. In this third instance, his boss approaches him to encourage him to take time off. Shannon shakes his head, staring straight forward, lips tight as if holding some bitter jewel in his mouth. “I’ll be here,” he says, “It’s what I do.” And so we watch him stretch the net into the pond and empty out the traps.
There’s something about the working class, the way the same undervalued and underpaid manual labor that locked them into their dire situations becomes a form of therapy through painful recognition, as if the remedy to the worst personal suffering is to make the muscles and joints ache louder in response.
My own father is like that.
In a way, all of my other relative anecdotes here are secondary to the fact that I was actually raised by a man like the men in Shotgun Stories. I remember my dad going to work when my grandpa died. I remember him doing more chores when his brother was killed in a logging accident. I remember that he’s been insistent on digging the grave of every family member we have ever lost, even as his own body grows more old and broken. My dad used to be a violent man. When he’s medicated, he tells me stories of bar brawls and fights with police. I know that when my dad fights, he bites his own tongue in the side of his mouth hard enough to bring blood and he draws his fists at his waist, daring his opponent to punch his face first so that he can respond with a flurry of haymakers, never jabs. It’s the same thing. Through tragedy and attack, he deals with hurt by admitting enough pain to push him further into a fight.
It creates a vicious cycle of retaliation. In Shotgun Stories, over and over, both Cleaman and Son, the assumed patriarchs of their family, state that the fight has to stop. When he loses his brother, Son visits his mother who is outside trimming hedges. He explains that this is her fault, yet in the mannerisms and expressions, it feels as though maybe he just wants permission to let it stop. But she has no idea how to grant him that. And, again, she gives him silence.
But the insistence that it “needs to stop” isn’t just a statement of fact, it’s a strategy in and of itself. For the blood feud to be put to rest, the men just have to decide to stop fighting. That’s all it would take, and it happens for a moment when Boy, holding a gun to Cleaman’s chest, sees Cleaman’s young sons running behind them. He responds by returning with a truce.
But anyone familiar with these types of people in real life will feel only an insecure comfort in the calm closing shots of Son sitting on his porch with his last surviving brother and his own child.
I’ve seen it way too much, for way too long. For my entire life, I have loved men and women like the men and women portrayed in Shotgun Stories.
These folks who played by the rules and only sank further and further into a losing game.
These hillbillies for whom elegies are recklessly published as a means of broad stroke mythology that serves only to reduce terms that are already too simply thought.
These women who have grown cold and callous in protecting their children from the meanness of their fathers and husbands, without realizing that their own defense only perpetuated the shrill cycle of defensive anger and violence.
These men with whom I could not discuss the love, who don’t make much mention of love until they have been dealt a few losses in life, this hopeless game having beaten them into resigned sentimentality.
These men whose fighting stances I know as much through self-defense as third person observation.
These men whose deceived backs proudly lifted the promise of trickle-down economies, whose shoulders first felt the collapse of that promise, whose lean arms in turn restructured those ruins into trickle-up spite, so that that bitter poison, that venomous taste which you can see in Shannon’s near lockjaw, that toxicity you see pumping through the veins in his prison tense shoulders, is in everything now.
This country, everyone in it, we’re all so fucking spiteful.
And it’s only getting more poisonous.
It’s a cliché, but I’m not sure that Nichols’ already-undervalued film would find an audience at all today, its sympathy too vulnerable to being perceived as condescension by its now-emboldened cultural subject and rejected as unearned pity by a theoretically more willing but certainly more scorned and defensive progressive audience whose frustration, as a means of political survival, has lead to a rationing of its good will for the white working class of the conservative South and energy-concerned Appalachian regions.
In the ten years since Shotgun Stories, we’ve segmented ourselves with spite, built an infrastructure, taxonomy, and symbolic economy out of spite. We define our identity groups out of the shared targets of our hate.
The middle and lower classes of this country have been dangled and dipped over the shameful tar pit of poverty for a near century now, doggedly clawing to stay one shove farther up than the next guy, and our heels have blindly clipped enough damage that we’re all just peripherally defending ourselves against one another.
That’s the America that I know best.
We’re all losing now. We’re all behind in the race. And when losing by miles or millions, it’s too easy to take shortcuts. Shortcuts like the dishonest mythologies invented by Son’s co-workers to explain the buckshot scars on his back in a way that allows them to forfeit sympathy and keep distance, that allows them to avoid the simpler explanation. He was just protecting his brothers.
Shortcuts like blaming your hateful guardians for your own decision to carry on with the hate.
Shortcuts like consciously overlooking the bald-faced evil of a campaigning politician because he pretends to speak evenly to you, because he feigns the anger that you were born into. Or shortcuts like dismissing entire regional or socio-economic collectives of citizens with two or three word buzz-terms—like “undocumented illegals” or “economic anxiety”—just so all the suffering can be ground into schadenfreude headlines about their loss of citizenship or health care.
I believe there’s a reason Nichols never shows the father who ignites the violence of Shotgun Stories, choosing instead only to have him spoken of as some historical abstract, the conceptual root of an untenable contemporary violence.
“This started a long time ago,” Son growls at the youngest of either Hayes clan after life has been lost on both sides of the blood feud. And Shannon’s sunken eyes seem fixed on a point much further back in history than the time when his father left them, his thunder rumble voice pulls from somewhere deeper inside than shotgun blasts can reach.
The grace of unearned compassion was never in the American contract and this spiteful violence is the only inheritance many of us will ever know. It is something of a miracle that Jeff Nichols uses the former to observe the latter in his very first film.
Today, it doesn’t feel like that will ever happen again, that we will ever get a movie as honest about this specifically American toxicity.
The last time I saw any of those three alliteratively-named real life brothers from my hometown was when Tommy showed up at my parents’ house while I was visiting on a bitterly cold evening in February. He was seeking what he normally sought: a cup of coffee, maybe a bite to eat, and a short sit-down near their woodstove. But he also wanted something else this time. He needed my mom’s guidance. Specifically, he asked if God would be mad at him for entering a local Toughman contest, an amateur boxing tournament with a thousand dollar cash prize awarded to the winner. Prize fighting was the only plan he could come up with. More pain felt, more pain delivered. The only method of currency and communication his country had ever taught him in clear and actionable terms. He knew God didn’t think much of violence, he explained, but the money could go a long way in helping fix his life.
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