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The weight of the South

‘Shotgun Stories’ provokes, but gets mired in an unfinished aesthetic.

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There's plenty to admire in Jeff Nichols' debut feature, “Shotgun Stories.” I grew up in southeastern Arkansas and often wondered why nobody ever set a movie in a world I could recognize. Now, somebody has tried. And bless his indomitable heart.

Critics have fallen all over themselves to praise the story of a deadly feud between two sets of half-brothers, and you only have to look to see why. Long, loving shots of raw earth alternate with concentrated and subtle character development. Sudden violence punctuates meticulously composed tableaux. Patient long takes sometimes pay off in a big way. At one difficult moment in the narrative, Nichols' lens captures the faint glint of a spider's web aloft on the evening breeze in the golden sunset. Such shots can knock you flat on your ass.

But Nichols' debut film, like that of his accomplished producer David Gordon Green, is clearly hampered by an unfinished aesthetic. By choosing to emulate the lyrical masterpieces of the auteurist giant Terrence Malick, Nichols has his sights set on an unforgiving style. At best, every moment feels singularly brave and revelatory. At worst, bravery takes on the veneer of foolishness.

Too many times, Nichols allows his reverence for the region rob his characters of any discernible agency. Their expressions can be as cold and inscrutable as a cement wall. Their actions can have an air of inevitability that leaves no quarter to the circumstances, much less the happenstance, of daily life. Every domino falls, whether pushed over by another or nudged by some invisible hand.

Having denied himself the luxury of a narrator, a device that Malick invariably employs, Nichols forces us to conjure thoughts from a procession of furrowed brows. Some old-fashioned staging would aid in the journey toward meaning, but, save a few fine examples, his characters spend a great deal of time sitting down, still as statues. I've known meth dealers and mean bastards, and I've never met anyone as stubbornly humorless — in every sense of the term — as Michael Shannon's Son.

This vision of one of the most desolate corners of our state borders on the romantic, or whatever opposite impulse has us misconstrue the experience of poverty as some sort of extended state of stoic nobility, a kind of tone-deafness that afflicts many Southern filmmakers at one time or another. Their characters battle quotidian injustice with a resigned grimace and carry the weight of the world on heroically hunched shoulders. Nichols' obstinate reliance on minimal signals and motivations registers a spiritual desolation, a personal rather than social poverty, that rings false.

It isn't easy to level criticisms at such a valiant and uncompromising film, but I can't fall in line with enabling Northern critics too blinded by the South of their imaginations and well-meaning native writers too happy just to see some familiar scenery. Making movies about the South is an important but casualty-strewn enterprise. You should see this film, if only to interrogate your own response. I've seen nothing more provocative this year. But demand more and better.

Derek Jenkins

Through the gloom, ‘Control'

“Shot in rapturous black and white.” There's a cheap trick that movie critic and movie director alike have used when dealing with a bloated, emotionally vacant period piece. In need of history? Shoot it in black and white! Then talk about it.

Of course, this isn't always a liability. A film like “Control,” were it to not question its own history, would collapse under its own weight. The film's subject, Ian Curtis (lead singer of Joy Division), is often taken up as a wan, sad boy in gloomy ol' England. He's really much sadder — Joy Division's music and singer, no matter how melodic or magnetic, were always racing towards two ghastly English artistic traditions. The first: Grim postwar, post-industrial misery — the kind that informs the film's shooting; Granada TV documentary, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” J.G. Ballard. The second: Gothic, supernatural nightmares that inform everything from folktale to “Jekyll and Hyde.” To do justice to such a paradoxical, contradictory and distant character is difficult, but guess what? It does. “Control” isn't merely a good yarn, or a good biopic or a good reconsideration of British film. It almost performs a feat of black magic — it has the vitality of its sitter, without requiring much insight as to who he truly is.

And how can we know? “Control” follows a seemingly pat rock story – the formation and explosion of Joy Division, a new wave band that ushered in not only 20-plus years of dominant structure in pop music, but an almost apocalyptic vision of urban decay. We watch, rapt, as Ian Curtis marries young, tends to a small asylum of disabled, unemployed townspeople as a government clerk, only to become “mad” himself, alienated from his wife, his friends, and his own existence by epilepsy, infidelity and angst within the sterile, post-Marshall Plan vision of England. There is so little to learn from his decisions, and even less to learn from the sadness he left behind. Suicide leaves behind its own trail of dead, we get that.

If we learn anything, it's about desperation and longing, about the pain of circumstance and how one does not escape it. At a little over two hours, “Control” is measured in its sadness and expertly paced. “Control” has the beauty of a myth, even as it looks so harshly at the damage that myths do.

Fritz Brantley

Saved by Smith

Every kid, I guess, has that “last man on Earth” daydream. You know, the one where you're the only one left — no parents to boss you around, eat anything you want, do anything you want. Want a Van Gogh for your living room or a Ferrari for your garage? Steal one. Who's gonna care?

The problem with this fantasy, of course, is blindingly obvious: In order to be the last person on earth, a whole lot of people have to get down to dying. Not only the hordes of strangers, but everyone you ever loved or knew. The trade-off for all that solitude is … all that solitude.

In the new apocalyptic fantasy “I Am Legend,” Will Smith plays a man who has hit just such a wall. While the movie isn't all that good, Smith brings nuance and grace to his performance of the last man, taking what could have been a standard-issue shoot-'em-up to a higher level.

Based on the Cold War-era horror novel by Richard Matheson, “I Am Legend” is the story of Dr. Robert Neville (Smith), a survivor living on the island of Manhattan eight years after a worldwide plague wiped out the majority of the human race. As seen in flashbacks, Neville was an Army doctor assigned to find a cure for KV, a virus unleashed on the world by — ironically — researchers looking for the cure for cancer. Unexpectedly, the virus mutates, killing 90 percent of the world's population. One percent — Neville among them — are immune to the disease. The other 9 percent, we're told, become superhuman, night-going ghouls — a cross between vampires and zombies, allergic to sunlight and hungry for human flesh. Fast forward, and Neville is powering his fortress-like house with generators, hunting the huge herds of deer that are slowly retaking the streets, and broadcasting a constant radio message to try and find other survivors. In the basement lab of his house, he continues his work, capturing the zombies and conducting drug trials on them to try and cure KV. Soon, we learn that the solitude and grief over losing his young family has taken a toll on Neville's mind — that he's talking to mannequins, and that he treats his German shepherd like a child. Finally, after a personal tragedy leads him to attempt suicide, Neville winds up making contact with the first survivors he has seen in years, and stumbles on the KV breakthrough that has long eluded him just before a final showdown with the zombie horde.

Though Smith's performance is moving and multi-faceted — bringing to mind Tom Hanks' one-man show in the middle two hours of “Castaway” — “I Am Legend” is a film with holes big enough to throw a cat through. Why, for instance, has Neville (even though he presumably has access to shortwave radios and microwave transmitters and satellite TV) never heard of the rumored “survivor colony” in New England? And: If Neville can turn his house into a steel-shuttered fortress, why can't he weld some wire mesh over the windows of his SUV? And, for that matter, why's he driving some yuppie grocery-getter in the first place? Why not one of the machine-gun-bedecked armored personnel carriers or Humvees that seem to litter the background of every scene? And another thing: Though we're told throughout the movie that the zombies have no higher brain function and can't reason, who is it that sets a carefully baited trap for him outside Penn Station?

While “Legend” had to bring in the zombie factor just to stay true to Matheson's original book, for my money the best scenes of the film aren't the jumping-running-fighting-shooting parts. They're those in which Smith's character is shown dealing — physically and emotionally — with his silent, slumbering world. Thanks mostly to Smith's skill as an actor, those scenes are infused both with Neville's profound loneliness and his sense of hope. Even if “I Am Legend” isn't quite all that, it is a rare example of how a good actor can elevate even a lackluster script. That alone is worth the price of the ticket.

David Koon


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