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The weight of the South 

‘Shotgun Stories’ provokes, but gets mired in an unfinished aesthetic.

SIBLING RIVALRY
  • SIBLING RIVALRY

There's plenty to admire in Jeff Nichols' debut feature, “Shotgun Stories.” I grew up in southeastern Arkansas and often wondered why nobody ever set a movie in a world I could recognize. Now, somebody has tried. And bless his indomitable heart.

Critics have fallen all over themselves to praise the story of a deadly feud between two sets of half-brothers, and you only have to look to see why. Long, loving shots of raw earth alternate with concentrated and subtle character development. Sudden violence punctuates meticulously composed tableaux. Patient long takes sometimes pay off in a big way. At one difficult moment in the narrative, Nichols' lens captures the faint glint of a spider's web aloft on the evening breeze in the golden sunset. Such shots can knock you flat on your ass.

But Nichols' debut film, like that of his accomplished producer David Gordon Green, is clearly hampered by an unfinished aesthetic. By choosing to emulate the lyrical masterpieces of the auteurist giant Terrence Malick, Nichols has his sights set on an unforgiving style. At best, every moment feels singularly brave and revelatory. At worst, bravery takes on the veneer of foolishness.

Too many times, Nichols allows his reverence for the region rob his characters of any discernible agency. Their expressions can be as cold and inscrutable as a cement wall. Their actions can have an air of inevitability that leaves no quarter to the circumstances, much less the happenstance, of daily life. Every domino falls, whether pushed over by another or nudged by some invisible hand.

Having denied himself the luxury of a narrator, a device that Malick invariably employs, Nichols forces us to conjure thoughts from a procession of furrowed brows. Some old-fashioned staging would aid in the journey toward meaning, but, save a few fine examples, his characters spend a great deal of time sitting down, still as statues. I've known meth dealers and mean bastards, and I've never met anyone as stubbornly humorless — in every sense of the term — as Michael Shannon's Son.

This vision of one of the most desolate corners of our state borders on the romantic, or whatever opposite impulse has us misconstrue the experience of poverty as some sort of extended state of stoic nobility, a kind of tone-deafness that afflicts many Southern filmmakers at one time or another. Their characters battle quotidian injustice with a resigned grimace and carry the weight of the world on heroically hunched shoulders. Nichols' obstinate reliance on minimal signals and motivations registers a spiritual desolation, a personal rather than social poverty, that rings false.

It isn't easy to level criticisms at such a valiant and uncompromising film, but I can't fall in line with enabling Northern critics too blinded by the South of their imaginations and well-meaning native writers too happy just to see some familiar scenery. Making movies about the South is an important but casualty-strewn enterprise. You should see this film, if only to interrogate your own response. I've seen nothing more provocative this year. But demand more and better.

Derek Jenkins

Through the gloom, ‘Control'

“Shot in rapturous black and white.” There's a cheap trick that movie critic and movie director alike have used when dealing with a bloated, emotionally vacant period piece. In need of history? Shoot it in black and white! Then talk about it.

Of course, this isn't always a liability. A film like “Control,” were it to not question its own history, would collapse under its own weight. The film's subject, Ian Curtis (lead singer of Joy Division), is often taken up as a wan, sad boy in gloomy ol' England. He's really much sadder — Joy Division's music and singer, no matter how melodic or magnetic, were always racing towards two ghastly English artistic traditions. The first: Grim postwar, post-industrial misery — the kind that informs the film's shooting; Granada TV documentary, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” J.G. Ballard. The second: Gothic, supernatural nightmares that inform everything from folktale to “Jekyll and Hyde.” To do justice to such a paradoxical, contradictory and distant character is difficult, but guess what? It does. “Control” isn't merely a good yarn, or a good biopic or a good reconsideration of British film. It almost performs a feat of black magic — it has the vitality of its sitter, without requiring much insight as to who he truly is.

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