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What We Like About the South

South of France, South of Arkansas. What's the difference? Shotgun Stories and Priceless sort it all out.

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A man named Hayes dies and leaves behind two families — three sons from his first wife and four sons from his second. Because the father was cruel and uncaring to his first three children and then later, after reforming himself, responsible and kind toward his subsequent brood, the first family bears a grudge against the second family. The three older sons show up uninvited to the old man's funeral and the eldest brother, a man named Son, eulogizes his father bitterly and spits on the casket. Tempers flare and the stage is set for a family feud of biblical proportions.

There is indeed something mythical, even scriptural, about the struggle among the seven Hayes brothers in Jeff Nichols' remarkable Shotgun Stories. Writer-director Nichols, a native of Little Rock and a frequent collaborator with filmmaker David Gordon Green (Snow Angels), sets this tale of resentment and retribution in the sleepy, deep-country town of England, Arkansas, where there's nothing to distract the half brothers from their vengeance and, ultimately, their reluctant soul-searching.

Son Hayes is played by Michael Shannon, the beetle-browed actor who lent an indelible air of menace to two of 2007's best films, Bug and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Shannon can do amazing things, most of them sinister, using only a few words and a penetrating glare, and director Nichols gives him plenty of room in which to work. Son and younger brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs) work in the local fish farm, and their brother Boy (Douglas Ligon), who lives in his van to save money, coaches the high school boys' basketball team. As anyone knows who's familiar with the South, the Hayes brothers' names are not all that uncommon in a region abounding with Buddys, Sonnys, Boys, Juniors, and Skips. As the action opens, Son's wife and their young boy have just moved out, so Son invites his brothers into his house, a trio of sullen, simmering, lower-middle-class losers who blame their father for making them that way.

In contrast to that trio, Old Mr. Hayes' four sons from his second marriage, led by Mark (Travis Smith) and Cleaman (Michael Abbott Jr.), operate a cotton farm, and have no time for their low-class half brothers, especially once the violence begins to escalate. It develops slowly, without a lot of shouting or gesticulating, like everything in the lazy little town.

Nichols captures the details perfectly — backyards full of half-wrecked cars, a train passing through town, a water moccasin captured in a bag, characters like the half-bright provocateur Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins) and the elder Hayes brothers' revenge-minded mother (Natalie Canerday from Walk the Line) — but has no need to resort to easy stereotypes of ignorant Southerners. It's more like Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade or the Southerns of Robert Duvall than carnival geek shows like Gummo. For Nichols and his characters, England isn't a hellhole, it's home.

Take note of the welts on Son's back, in the pattern of a shotgun blast. It's the first thing we see in the movie, and everyone in town has an explanation, but naturally no one confronts Son about it. His bloodlust turns out to be the driving force of the feud. All three brothers in Family Number One have escape plans. Son's is to learn to count cards and beat the system at the local riverboat casino. Kid's is to simply marry his girlfriend Cheryl and settle down. Boy is the hardest to peg. Pudgy, unshaven, slow on the uptake, and yet an authority figure to his schoolboy athletes, Boy rises to the occasion when the time comes, the moral center among the seven warring boys. In a story defined by taciturn action and terse dialogue, actor Douglas Ligon almost steals the film from Shannon. Down to the last extra, the townsfolk of England are exquisite. So is Shotgun Stories.

At one point in Shotgun Stories, Son bemoans his job as a laborer for $20,000 a year. If he worked for two years, saved every dime, and then picked up a part-time job somewhere, he'd have the price tag for the watch that Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam), the sugar mama in Priceless, buys for her new boyfriend Jean (Gad Elmaleh) one afternoon in Nice, France.

Pierre Salvadori's deceptively sunny 2006 romantic comedy is the type of light drama that insinuates its point of view steadily, amidst great glamour and breeziness, only to reveal itself as a meditation on, dare we say it, capitalism. Or at the very least, on the concepts of ownership, property, and prostitution. It's a date movie that operates on several different levels. The deeper you go, the more provocative it gets.

Late one night in an "old man's" luxury hotel, a high-end play-for-pay girl named Irène (Audrey Tautou) comes down to the deserted hotel bar after her elderly sugar daddy, Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff), has dropped off to sleep. She spies what seems to be the bar's lone customer, Jean, asleep on a sofa, assumes he's a hotel guest, and their flirtation leads to an evening of cocktails and sex. Turns out Jean is really the lowly hotel barman, but he's so smitten with the slinky Irène that he can't/won't admit it for fear of losing her. He takes her to an empty suite with his passkey, they're awakened the next day by the arrival of incoming guests, and the jig seems to be up for poor Jean. But not quite.

Ms. Tautou, never cuter, peels back Irène's "professional girlfriend" defenses slowly. At first, she's understandably annoyed at working-stiff Jean's interfering with her livelihood, which mostly consists of having the daddy buy her expensive clothes and toys in exchange for boum-boum. After Jacques fires her, she has no qualms about taking Jean for all he's worth — he cleans out his bank account and pension fund to keep her a few days. But later, after the now-penniless Jean joins her league by becoming a gigolo himself for the steely femme d'un certain age Madeleine, the game changes. Who's the whore? What's the basis of these relationships? And why are the sugar daddies and mommies always so morose? Doesn't money buy happiness?

Irène is so accustomed to hustling she has trouble doing anything else. Jean's job is to convince her to adopt a low-sugar diet: the freewheeling life on the back of a motor scooter. Director Salvadori, Tautou, the soulful-eyed Elmaleh, and the rest of the splendid cast help the medicine go down with lots of sweet Riviera scenery. 

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