Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chekhov's Gun

(Jeff Nichols, US, 2007, 35mm, 90 mins.)


If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the
following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.

-- Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)


Back in the 1970s, an abusive, alcoholic Arkansas man named Hayes fathers
three sons. Then he leaves, finds God, cleans up his act, marries another woman, and fathers four more sons. Shortly after Shotgun Stories begins, Hayes dies.

The first three sons, now fully grown, show up at his funeral. Son (Kentucky
native Michael Shannon) speaks briefly to his estranged father's lousy parenting skills, spits into the coffin, and leaves with his younger brothers, Boy (Douglas
Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). The rest of the family sits in stunned silence.

[Check out the way The San Francisco Chronicle's Walter Addiego describes Shannon,
break-out star of Bug and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: "He has a face made
for Westerns-you can picture him in Peckinpah's movies-and when he's on-screen, the other actors might as well just grab a chair, sit and wait till he's finished.]

Son and Kid toil at a fish farm; Boy coaches a middle-school basketball team.
While the first act is devoid of guns, the title indicates that a family feud is in the offing. It is, though Son states flatly, "This started a long time ago." Nonetheless, calm reins for awhile. The sun beats down on the cottonfields, the skies are clear.
Then one afternoon, six of the seven men-Son, Boy, Kid, Mark (Travis Smith), Stephen (Lynnsee Provence), and John (David Rhodes)-run into each other at a carwash and fists fly (only the level-headed Cleaman is missing). No one is badly hurt, and the fight ends before the cops arrive, but the gauntlet has been thrown.
A firearm appears in the next act while the youngest Hayes hunt for snakes. Once
a knife enters the picture, the cycle begins in earnest. Ultimately, someone fires
a shotgun, but not in the expected manner. In the meantime, Jeff Nichols ex-
pends his energies on the rhythms of rural life, the quiet intervals between outbreaks of violence. Deaths, both human and animal, occur off-screen.
On the one hand, this removes his archetypal, borderline-Biblical scenario from the realm of cliche. Nichols neither shies away from nor revels in violence. On the other, there's only so much depth to these characters (the second set of siblings are mostly ciphers). That may be intentional, and the actors are persuasive, but Son, Boy, and Kid are more interesting-even occasionally amusing-than genuinely sympathetic.
Lovingly shot in widescreen by cinematographer Adam Stone (longtime associate
of producer David Gordon Green), Shotgun Stories may not cut as deep as Nichols intends, but it does exemplify the way a fresh eye can create something new from the remnants of something old. Revenge dramas, after all, are a dime a dozen.
If some critics have gotten a little over-ecstatic about the filmmaker's first
feature, it's not hard to blame them. Comparisons to Bob Rafelson's Five Easy
and David Cronenberg's A History of Violence might seem overblown, but they're not that far off the mark, and those weren't debuts (though Rafelson's only previous movie was the Monkees oddity Head). Premiering in Seattle at SIFF '07
and arriving on DVD in July, Shotgun Stories is best enjoyed on the big screen.
Shotgun Stories continues at the Northwest Film Forum through Thurs., 5/15,
at 7 and 9pm. As a side note, tonight is the final evening for John Boorman's
rarely-screened Leo the Last (Wed., 5/14; show times at 7 and 9:15pm). The
NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For
more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from CSPV,
The House Next Door, and Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery.


  1. I got the Chekhov's Gun lesson in my first screenwriting class at UT, but the way the instructor, native Texan Darryl Wimberley, put it was, "If you've got a gun in the first act it damn well better go off by the third act!"