June 7, 2008 [Shotgun Stories]

After Bug, what would possess me to watch another Michael Shannon movie? Ashley Judd seemed fine, but by the time he was done with her, she was crazier than he, crazy as—here it comes—a bug. That mouth of his anguished that he has to say such terrible things. His eyes drilling into you with combined rage and entreaty. His frame lanky—but somehow huge, like Karloff, a skinny guy seemingly ten feet tall and big as a barn. A nightmare.

And of course that's why I ran to Shotgun Stories—that, plus Roger Ebert's review, in which he takes one of his good hard long looks at the main character, Shannon's Son, and asserts, "The hero of the film does not believe the future is doomed by the past." Ebert sees the tragedy in the picture, but he also sees something more, hope—and he's right, it's in Shannon's eyes, as tense as the situation gets, as hopeless as it seems. Ebert sees this kind of thing clearly—maybe more so these past few years, as his cancer cruelly instructs him and improves his vision and makes his voice stronger. 

So off I went, and Lord he was right—and something else, something Shannon brings: a quiet that comes from the conviction that no one's listening anyway, that any sound advice will fall on deaf ears—they've claimed the right of vengeance, like Greeks in their tragedies—and something worse: that maybe he really doesn't have anything to say, that maybe his brothers are living in the only world they can, one so full of resentment and hurt feelings that you either turn it inward—as Son seems to have done—and start to waste away, or you blast away and make it hit someone in the head and take most of it off and be done with them.

But Son won't have it. So he plugs away at his brothers, keeping his fingers crossed that their lives at the edge of a town that's not much better off than they are can still be salvaged, at least for anyone who comes after. Ebert wants us to hope that "Son finds the life he desires for his own son," and in this closing line I thought of one of the central moments in American movies, when the homesteader old lady in The Searchers tells us that she knows nothing will be built for her, but that something solid will stand on her bones. Her job is to clear the way, just as Son keeps looking and looking, Shannon's eyes like a shoulder pressing against a leaning weight, straight at his brothers to plead that they help him do what he can.

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