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Shotgun Stories

Directed by Jeff Nichols
Certificate 12a, 92 mins

What is a Christian? In Shotgun Stories, a drunk has had a family (three boys), left them, then become a Christian, married again and had a second family. The drunken father is absent from the film - the first we hear of him is when the mother of the now adult Son, Kid and Boy Hayes (Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs) turns up at Son's house to tell them that their father is dead. She shows no emotion relaying the news. But Son simmers, attends the funeral (a devout affair organised by the second family) and makes an inflammatory, impromptu speech against his late father telling it like he sees it. This understandably upsets the second family, of whom the volatile Mark (one of that family's four sons, played by Travis Smith) resolves to exact revenge. Cue a rattlesnake put near Boy's dog to kill it, followed by serial fights which result in deaths on both sides.

All of which might sound like another action-packed thriller, but Nichols, the writer and director, isn't interested in the Hollywood rollercoaster ride. He seems fascinated by characters scarcely able to articulate their concerns who as a result resort to violence, and he possesses an amazing understanding of the spaces between individuals. The violence, when it erupts, isn't particularly stylised but is played instead with a concern to show what violence is really like, along with its immediate and lasting effects. When someone is wounded or, worse, killed, you really feel it here; there are no gratuitous minor characters getting blown away as part of a larger entertainment.

All of this is augmented by an extraordinary and highly personal geographical setting. Nichols grew up in the farmlands of small town south-east Arkansas and brings his intimate knowledge of its landscape to the screen in glorious anamorphic 2.35:1 scope, the wide open spaces punctuated by matter-of-fact tractors under repair, and local gas stations which provide the perfect counterpoint to the tensions between the two feuding sets of brothers. Which is all the more amazing considering the piece's pedigree as a small, US independent production. It's not hard to see what attracted the sometime director David Gordon Green (All The Real Girls, Undertow) to be a producer here: like Green's films, Nichols' work is beautifully understated but thoroughly grasps what makes people tick.

So, what is a Christian? This isn't a preachy film and it's very definitely a US one which raises, indirectly at least, all manner of questions about what a profession of Christianity might mean within that particular society. This religious cultural backdrop is even more understated than the obviously visible landscape, but just as inescapable - a badge of respectability which conveniently forgets past sins by pushing them under the carpet, regardless of possible consequences. Films labelled 'must see' are two a penny, but this is the real deal - and nothing less than devastating.

Jeremy Clarke