As a male movie critic with both liberal-humanist convictions and a hypersensitivity to injustices large and small, I seesaw between contradictory impulses: to denounce screen fantasies of vigilante vengeance as antithetical to social harmony, and to get royally pissed off when bad guys don’t die with enough gurgling and hemorrhaging. My inner divide is one of the reasons I was so moved by Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, a mournful drama in which two sets of brothers—they share a father—engage in a deadly feud. The movie makes you empathize with the rage that drives these young men to violence—but it also makes you see how manly action wipes out their individuality, their uniqueness, and turns them into archetypal meatheads.
I don’t use “archetypal” lightly. Shotgun Stories has mythic undertones (and overtones, and mid-tones). I hesitate to mention that the protagonist (Michael Shannon) is known as “Son” and his brothers are “Boy” (Douglas Ligon) and “Kid” (Barlow Jacobs) for fear you’ll think that Nichols has saddled them with too much allegorical baggage. Don’t hate him because he’s pretentious—so are lots of earnest young directors! The story is set in southeast Arkansas, against a landscape of isolated farms and dilapidated main streets, and the rhythms are languid; but the lines that pop out of these stuporous characters’ mouths have the bitter tang of real life. Here are the Hayes brothers as they swill beer on a rundown corner: “This is one empty-ass town.” (Pause.) “If I owned this town, I’d sell it.” (Pause.) “We don’t own the square root of shit.”
They don’t really own their family name, either, since their wastrel father ran out on them, turned over a new (religious) leaf, and started over again with another wife and kids. Not long into Shotgun Stories, the boys’ estranged mother shows up and curtly informs them their father has died. The next day, they crash the funeral in jeans and T-shirts. Son makes a speech in which he castigates his father for leaving them to be “raised by a hateful woman,” then spits on the grave. A primal injury has been answered—with a primal insult. One of the second set of Hayes brothers (Travis Smith) won’t let that insult go, and pretty soon you start to get an uneasy feeling about the welfare of Boy’s dog. You can see the horror that’s coming, but it comes slowly, dragging its dead-dog carcass, which gives you plenty of time to dread the tit-for-tat payback that grows in intensity like a drug addiction.
Nichols is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, also home to the film’s co-producer, David Gordon Green (director of George Washington and the recent Snow Angels), and Shotgun Stories is broadly in the category of what we sniggering urbanites used to call “deadbeat regionalism” (before the indie movement was kicked into the mainstream by Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein). But the sensibility here is more subversive, more attuned to the South’s subliminal violence. Adam Stone’s wide-screen cinematography captures the heat and the corrosive moisture, the lush green of the cotton fields and the rust of the pickup trucks, the natural beauty juxtaposed with the unnatural human debris. The place is breathtaking—and utterly indifferent to the people who inhabit it. The landscape reinforces the pathos of the first set of Hayes brothers, whose mother raised them to hate the second set and then left them to make their own way. Now the likably ingenuous Kid is camped in a tent on Son’s lawn, while slobbola Boy lives out of his old van, which doesn’t work so well after he plugged an air-conditioner he found on the street into his cigarette lighter. The boys are easy prey for “Shampoo” (G. Alan Wilkins), a drug dealer on the run from cops after blowing up his lab: Every time this cyclops (he has a cloth over a damaged eye) shows up he casually incites them to violence. The drug he’s pushing is revenge.
Shotgun Stories has a flawless cast, but it’s the peculiarity of Michael Shannon that keeps it from becoming too obvious. Maybe you saw him as the delusional, paranoiac Iraq vet in the underrated Bug, or the thuggish, blackmailing brother-in-law in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, or the spookily pious ground-zero hero of World Trade Center—or as a solemn, six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch figure staring into a script on your F train. The huge, square forehead would make him a natural for Frankenstein’s monster, and I don’t mean that as an insult. His deliberateness can be lovable, even romantic, but can also signal desperation, as if his head were too cavernous for him to snatch and string together all his thoughts. He’s a fascinating actor—the perfect hero for movies suffused with rage against the Creator.
Despair over the absence of the father fuels an enormous number of American films, including Shotgun Stories, which blames Dad for the war of brother against brother. In Italian movies, boys fight right under Dad’s nose, and what can he do? The country is lousy with brothers fighting brothers! In My Brother Is an Only Child, which is set in the sixties and seventies, the older sibling becomes a Communist, the younger a Fascist, and the two of them brawl all through the film. The script is co-written by director Daniele Luchetti and Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, who wrote the six-hour epic The Best of Youth—which also focused on two brothers and their divergent political paths. In my review of that film I wrote, “No, it’s not what you’re thinking: brother against brother, one a Fascist and the other a Communist hippie. It’s nothing so clichéd or allegorical or extreme in the manner of Bertolucci’s 1900.” Luchetti , Petraglia, and Rulli, must have missed that review—they turned around and made a beeline for the clichés.
Or maybe they set out to pull the rug out from under potential critics. What makes My Brother Is an Only Child so alive and entertaining is how it dramatizes the endless tug-of-war between political conviction and personal experience—the way the lines twist and blur and finally implode. Accio (Vittorio Emanuele Propizio at 13, Elio Germano postpuberty) begins by striving to be a priest but is annoyed that pleasuring oneself is a sin that requires absolution. He does not want to be absolved. He wants girls. But it’s his heartthrob older brother, Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio), who’s the babe- magnet as well as the favorite of Mom and the charismatic Communist proselytizer. So jealous Accio starts hanging out with an avuncular Fascist merchant, Mario (Luca Zingaretti), and poring over Mussolini picture books. He announces, “I want to redeem the lost honor of the revolution.” Fascists aren’t too popular in this factory town, though, and Accio is routinely disparaged by his mom, dad, and sister Violetta (Alba Rohrwacher) … until his sister’s boyfriend jilts her and she asks him for a favor. “A Fascist in the family is always handy,” says Accio.
It isn’t long before Accio’s fellow Fascists get a little too unruly and the Communists start shooting at the factory owners and it’s time for our protagonist to say a plague on both your houses. The best scene is a black-comic masterpiece: Manrico and a Communist conductor “de-fascistize” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by replacing the Almighty with Mao, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. As the left-wing audience drinks it in, the Fascists begin to gather in the back like the birds on the monkey bars in Hitchcock’s The Birds. “Leave Beethoven alone or we’ll bust your ass!” they snarl.
Publicity for My Brother Is an Only Child likens the film to early works of Bertolucci and Marco Bellocchio—which is mystifying, since those movies were made in the middle of the cultural mêlée. This one maintains an ironic distance. I like my Italian political film messier and more abrasive—and less slighting to the actual politics. But its mischievous skepticism—doubtless the result of watching good people suffer at the hands of mindless ideologues—is a kick.
I wouldn’t believe that Run, Fat Boy, Run was co-written by Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) if he weren’t up there on the screen in teeny briefs and with his gut stuck out, trying to endear himself to the American audience in material maybe a notch above Rob Schneider’s. The director, David Schwimmer, underlines the jokes and adds exclamation points, but a softer touch probably wouldn’t have helped. As Pegg’s rival in love, Hank Azaria does an amusing George Clooney send-up (he’s too handsome for the room) that has the paradoxical effect of invoking Clooney’s elegance and making the movie seem even flabbier.
Anyone who saw Simon Pegg looking trim in his bulletproof vest just a year ago in the supercop parody Hot Fuzz may be confused to see him listed as the tubby protagonist of Run, Fat Boy, Run. But fear not for his health. Rather than taking the Bridget Jones approach—Renée Zellweger famously gorged on milkshakes—Pegg followed in the footsteps of Penélope Cruz and Gwyneth Paltrow, lithe beauties who strapped on prosthetic pounds in Volver and Shallow Hal. To play the unlikely marathoner, Pegg wore three fake stomachs— as well as a prominently displayed pair of Nikes, which some British critics lamented as foul product placement.
Directed byJeff Nichols
Liberation Entertainment. PG-13.
My Brother Is an Only Child
Directed by Daniele Luchetti
Run, Fat Boy, Run
Directed by David Schwimmer
Picturehouse Entertainment. PG-13.