Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Shotgun Stories -- fathers and families

Director: Jeff Nichols, 2007.

Nichols debut film as both writer and director revolves around a man never seen in the entire movie. The man, Mr. Hayes, had two families with two women. These families are as different as can be on the outside, but inside they are so similar, fueled by revenge and the need for violence.

Shotgun Stories is set in semi-rural Arkansas, amid the cotton fields and fishing streams where many make their living. The first set of Hayes boys we meet are the unnamed ones. Apparently unloved, Hayes senior named them Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). This lack of naming points to his refusal to see these offspring as unique and worthy of the dignity of a moniker. Indeed, an early shot of Son's back shows the scars left from an earlier shotgun story.

Nichols takes the time to show us this set of boys. He tells us little but the camera fills in the picture. They are rednecks, white trash, living in a clapboard house. Son's wife has left him because he is losing too much money gambling . . . or at least trying to defeat the system. Kid is living in a tent in the yard, and Boy sleeps in his Chevy conversion van amidst the piles of junk food wrappers and other crud. All three are barely above the survival line.

Life goes on in its banal way for these Hayes boys until their mom shows up to tell them their dad has died. When they arrive at the grave-side service in tee-shirts and jeans, the other Hayes family is listening to the pastor give the eulogy. Since the deceased was apparently a Christian convert, the minister has positive things to say. Son interrupts the moment to share from his hearts words of anger and resentment. In spite he spits on the grave. Not a good way to reunite with your half-brothers.

This scene causes us to reflect on several issues. First off, how will we remember our father? Will we look back on the good times, the positive things he did for us? Do we have fond memories of our time with him? Or will we spit out hateful words of negativity? Fathers are supposed to reflect our heavenly Father. Though none can be perfect they are intended to provide, protect, nurture and love as He does for us.

Second, did Hayes really convert to Christianity? It seems he proclaimed Christ and made behavioral changes in his character, giving up violence and drink. But his second chance at a family seems to have turned out no better really than his first. His sons from this marriage are as violent as those from his first. Can a conversion ensure change in offspring? Not really. We individually choose to accept Christ. As parents, even fathers, we exert influence over our children but it is ultimately their decision to follow Jesus themselves or not. That is not ours. Proverbs offers some encouragement (Prov. 22:6) but no guarantees in this respect.

Son's inappropriate memorial outburst is the spark that ignites the feud between the two sets of half-brothers. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, there is no love lost between these Hayes half-brothers. When harsh words escalate into violence, the old hostilities produce brutal actions with unrecoverable results.

What makes Shotgun Stories work is its realism. Nichols has written a minimalist script. Dialog is sparse. We see the changes in the oddball characters, rather than hearing them. The pace is perfect, too. Slow and simmering, the film mirrors the rising anger in the Hayes' sons. And the moody guitar and violin score complements the visuals in this award-winning independent film.

One thing becomes clear. When Son goes to his mother later in the film there is no love between them. She has raised him and his brothers to hate their dad and his new family. They have learned to hate, not to love. Are we inherently prone to love rather than to hate, or are we born neutral, ready to be stamped and formed into an image by our parents, our circumstances and our environment? The Bible affirms that we are born in sin, our natures tainted and prone to self-centeredness (2 Pet. 2:10), even deceit (Jer. 17:9). We can love, but we can also hate. In normal families and social setting, our love will supersede any hatred. To hate enough to fuel a feud requires poisoning by a parent or some other tragic crisis.

If Son's words spark the feud, it is another character's words that push it beyond control. Shampoo, a redneck friend living in his car, is the agent provocateur. Instead of minding his own business, he spreads gossip. How often do we stir up trouble by passing on "information" which is none other than gossip? The Bible makes it clear that this subtle sin should be avoided(2 Cor. 12:20) and warns us that it will bring on division (Prov. 16:28). If only Shampoo had left things alone.

With revenge as a central theme, there is not much that points to redemptive value in Shotgun Stories. But there is a glimpse of grace toward the end. Also, both families of boys evidence that blood is thicker than water. What is important to both is the value of family. Revenge is a costly thing. But family is worth more. This is true enough.

No human family is perfect, but all are intrinsically valuable. The potential can be lost, as evident in Hayes' first one. But it is there at the start. And earthly families offer a dim reflection of our heavenly family. If we follow Jesus, we are adopted and welcomed as children of God. He is our perfect father. In heaven, when we have become like Jesus (Rom. 8:29), we will have perfect siblings. We will know the depths of the meaning of family. Until then, we must do our best to value the families we have here.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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