Son Hayes had a bad week. Stuck in a dead end job that propeled him to take up a card counting gambling habit, Son woke up one day in his small house in Arkansas only to find his wife and his son had left him. Soon afterward, his estranged mother visits his house, now shared with his two bumbling brothers Boy and Kid (yes these are their real names), to tell him that his once drunken father, who abandoned the brothers long ago to raise a new family, has died.
Using a haunting soundtrack by Lucero and Pyramid and captivating cinematography by Adam Stone to create the sleepy backdrop of a poor rural community, Nichols’ epic tale of feuding half-brothers builds with the speed and intensity of a hot southern day. In his feature directorial debut, Jeff Nichols is surprisingly not afraid to allow pregnant silences or sweeping scenery to fill his screen. Nor is he afraid to spend the time necessary to build his supporting characters with meticulous detail.
On the whole, Nichols avoids stereotypical characterizations and brings Son and his brothers to life with poignant originality. Kid (played by Barlow Jacobs), the youngest, struggles to find comfort in the arms of his pretty girlfriend who seemingly offers unconditional love despite the fact that Kid often lives in a tent located in Son’s backyard and earns a meager income at a local fish farm. Heavy drinker Boy (played by Douglas Ligon), on the other hand, lives out of his car, attempts to coach a youth basketball team with a bum knee and his faithful dog Henry by his side, and longs to find the courage that his older brother Son exudes. Nichols even has a goofball character named Shampoo, played with delightful quirkiness by scene-stealer G. Alan Wilkins.
Although the audience spends a majority of its time watching as these characters vacillate between violence and ambivalence, the lighter and more memorable moments come when the brothers bond, often over booze. For example, sitting on the downtown sidewalk after their father’s funeral, Son reflects on how “empty” the town looks. With no one in sight, Kid ominously replies, “It’s like we own it.” Boy, the sensitive dreamer, adds, “If I owned this town, I’d sell it.” Yet Son ends this moment displaying his typical dry wit: “We don’t own the square root of shit.”
Playing eldest brother Son is veteran stage actor Michael Shannon, whose looks can be compared to Ewen McGregor, but whose acting is truly original. Best know for his supporting roles in “World Trade Center” and “Vanilla Sky,” as Boy, Shannon gives an understated but powerful performance. In the hands of a lesser actor this pensive and seething characterization of a father who tries to keep his family together would come across as flat and tedious. Yet Shannon’s unusual line delivery and strong physicality make Son’s complex and pivotal role utterly believable. Having endured a difficult upbringing by a woman he calls “hateful,” Son lives his entire life across town from his father, a recovered alcoholic who found God and a new wealthier lifestyle complete with even more sons. And when the father’s funeral brings these estranged half-brothers together, the plot thickens to allow for Shannon’s stellar performance to truly light up the screen.
Luckily Nichols chooses Son’s mysterious past as the vehicle to drive the narrative rather than the predictable plot of revenge against the half-brothers. The end result is a film that takes audiences on a deeper journey of discovery to uncover the identity of a man striving to rise above his surroundings. Although the ending fails to deliver that climactic moment that today’s audiences expect, it does offer a message of hope. And what started off as a story about the hatefulness of revenge ironically turns into a story about the necessity of love.