(IFC First Take) Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynnsee Provence, Michael Abbott Jr. Directed by Jeff Nichols
For most of us, family is the most important factor in our lives. We’ll do anything, risk everything, and put our lives on the line if it means protecting our families. We strive to always be there for our families, to never fail them. When our families fail us, it is a terrible thing however.
Son Hayes (Shannon) and his brothers Kid (Jacobs) and Boy (Ligon) were brought into this world by, in Son’s words, a hateful woman who knocks on his door one night to inform him that his estranged father has died. She informs him in much the same way as she might tell him that the local supermarket is having a sale on cantaloupes. She has no plans to attend the funeral, although Son and his brothers do, even though the man couldn’t be bothered to give them names, was an alcoholic degenerate who eventually found sobriety and Jesus, and left them to start a new family with four new sons. Son, as a matter of fact, has a few words to say at the funeral, none of them good about his late dad and his other four sons who don’t take kindly to Son’s harsh words and his final defiant gesture of spitting on the grave of their mutual Pa.
Of course, it isn’t like their lives were scintillating to begin with. Son works on a fish farm feeding the fish. His wife (Pannell) left him recently, taking their son with her, since Son has a tendency to spend every dime he has gambling using a system of his own creation. Kid lives in a tent in Son’s yard and is trying to put enough money away to marry his long-time girlfriend who waits for him patiently. Boy is the basketball coach at the local middle school, living in a van and trying to beat the summer heat by plugging in a home air conditioning unit into the cigarette lighter in the van, with predictable results.
Thus is the way of things in rural Arkansas. Son’s gesture escalates into a blood feud that will leave at least one person dead and the lives of both sides altered beyond repair.
If Shakespeare had lived in Little Rock, this might be what Hamlet might have turned out like. The sense of impending tragedy is palpable, and Nichols is a keen student of human nature (being a native of the Little Rock area, he has a fine affinity for the characters and the rhythms of their speech). That’s not to say that this is a timeless classic, only that it captures certain elements of the Bard well.
Shannon is a man among boys here, showing off the kind of chops that would win him an Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Road the following year. He has eyes that pierce through the camera and a scowl that dares you to cross him, informing you that you would be most unwise if you do.
I liked the dialogue of the movie; there’s an authenticity to it that elevates the movie. The characters mostly talk about the inane, often with a biting sense of humor. Rarely does a movie explore such depth in such simple terms without a bit of a self-congratulatory streak in it. It is business as usual for these characters and they go about it with grim efficiency, knowing that given the way life has always treated them, it will end badly for them eventually.
There is a certain amount of indie drama 101 in the filmmaking here, and I won’t deny that some of this treads familiar ground. I have to admit though that I found this a fascinating life study, because while these guys may be uneducated, they’re not necessarily stupid and they certainly have a lot of qualities that are worthwhile, despite the fact that their father dealt them a losing hand from the get-go.
They keep plugging away having accepted the inevitable and embracing their own undeclared war on their own past demons, although they probably wouldn’t put it in those terms. They just follow their instincts, and those instincts are usually headed straight down the wrong way on a one-way street. If the Hayes boys were reading this, they might say something along the lines of at least that way they can see all the traffic coming.
WHY RENT THIS: A gripping look at an extended family torn apart, with some strong performances particularly from Shannon.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve seen a lot of this before, albeit not as well in some cases.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are on the mature side and there is some violence, although not graphic or brutal. There is some blue language but not a lot. I’d probably think twice before letting the more immature members of your family see it, but should be okay for everyone else.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the sequences taking place after dark were shot in a single night.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 7/10