In this new regular feature, we examine the debut works of major filmmakers in the hope of showcasing the films themselves, and offering insight into how the early work of a filmmaker can shape the path of their subsequent career. To coincide with the U.K. release of Jeff Nichols’ excellent second film, Take Shelter, this inaugural column will shine a light on his debut, Shotgun Stories.
Though it is still early days, especially since he has only directed two films, there is a distinct possibility that Jeff Nichols may prove to be the best American filmmaker to emerge in the last decade. His new film, Take Shelter, is as intense and haunting a film as you are likely to see this year, boasting a powerful performance from Michael Shannon as a man struggling with the visions he has of an oncoming storm that threatens to destroy everything in its path, visions which may be real, or may be the signs that he is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia.
Take Shelter is easily one of the best films of the year, and one of the most startling American films of the last five or six, and it has received a deserved amount of attention as a result. Yet it seems strange that the same lavish praise did not greet his debut, Shotgun Stories, when it was released in 2007. The reviews were comparable (at Rotten Tomatoes, Shotgun Stories has a 91% Fresh Rating whilst Take Shelter has 94%) but the disparity in terms of attention is quite stark, since Shotgun Stories seemed to come and go without anyone really noticing, even though it has much of the same elemental power that has made Take Shelter such a big deal.
Shotgun Stories tells of a feud between different members a family, though they would be loathe to use the term. The film revolves around two sets of half-brothers who all share the same father, though he abandoned the first set (played by Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon and Barlow Jacobs) years before, and has since fathered four more sons and has pretty much cut off all contact with his first sons, despite his new role as an upstanding member of the community. When their father dies, all his the children attend the funeral and Son (Shannon) makes an excoriating speech insulting their father for leaving them to be raised by their spiteful mother. Son’s speech is the spark that sets off a series of increasingly violent retributions between the brothers, eventually spiralling and spiralling until violence and murder seem the only possible end.
One of the key themes in both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter is that of legacies and the way in which the past shapes the present and future. In Take Shelter, Curtis (Shannon) fears that his mental deterioration may have been inherited from his mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was roughly the same age that he is during the events of the film. Similarly, there is a key scene in Shotgun Stories, after blood has been spilled by both sides, when Shannon’s character confronts his mother with the words, “You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. Now it’s come to this.” Both films centre around the idea that these characters are caught up in a chain of events that they did not begin, but which will inevitably carry them to their destruction.
Both films distinguish themselves by giving their characters a keen awareness of their own situations. The Hayes boys in Shotgun Stories aren’t idiots: they know that they are walking a path that will end up with some or all of them dead, but they also don’t know how they can extricate themselves from their situation. Everything that has happened in their lives has led them to this point, and the forces of history and decades of hate are driving them onwards so they feel that they can’t turn away if they wanted. In Take Shelter, Curtis is very aware that his dreams and visions are hallucinations, and he spends much of the film fighting against his growing paranoia by seeking professional help and advice. Yet at the same time he can’t stop himself from giving in to the voices in his head, otherwise he wouldn’t invest considerable time and money constructing a storm shelter for an apocalypse that might not happen.
Nichols’ characters are driven by forces they can’t control, yet their awareness of this fact makes them seem all the more sadly human. They’re figures being pushed by history and heritage to do things that they fundamentally know to be wrong, but which they are completely unable to stop themselves doing. It’s this quality that lends both of his films a mythic feeling, an idea that the characters are living through a story that has been told and re-told since time immemorial. The tension between the universality of his themes and specificity of his location and milieu – both of his films are set amongst the blue-collar people of the Midwest – lend his work a terrific emotional power because his characters and their plight seem so relatable, even if the specific circumstances are not.
Nichols has also established himself as a director with a fantastic visual sense, which makes terrific use of the emptiness of his Midwest locales and bears favourable comparison to the work of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green (who served as a producer on Shotgun Stories). His visuals give his stories an all-encompassing grandeur that contrasts beautifully with the quiet intimacy of their stories. It’s that combination of ambition and basic humanism that courses throughout every aspect of his work, from the look to the sound to the pitch-perfect performances, and it is that sense of single, unified vision that make Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter such powerful films, and makes Nichols someone to watch in the future.
Take Shelter is playing in select cinemas nationwide from 25th November