Anyone who watches movies knows that some of the greatest offerings of falsity come in the package of authenticity, and this is never more so than when a filmmaker takes his shot at rural or back home America. The pitfalls are many, and invariably, films about the small town succumb to oppressive nostalgia (Hoosiers), salt-of-the-earth worship (Promised Land), the presence of an impossibly attractive lead as he or she slums (Mel Gibson in The River, George Clooney in The Perfect Storm), cutesy “we’re jes’ folks” condescension (Passion Fish), amped up mythology (Out of the Furnace) or just plain old moronic messages, like money doesn’t buy happiness or home is where the heart is or safe sex is the best sex.
There are exceptions (Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade, Carl Franklin’s One False Move, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone), but they are rare and they are not current. In Mud, Take Shelter, and this film, a story about two modern Arkansas families drawn into a violent confrontation upon the death of their shared patriarch, writer-director Jeff Nichols cements that he can translate the patterns, pace and feel of the small town like no other. The actors portraying the family members are natural and unburdened by archetype, and the town itself is not presented to you as a metaphor or cautionary tale, just a town.
What Nichols does with actors and setting he achieves with tone. The families are seemingly in as safe a place as you can be, but when their animosities surface, their very environment becomes foreboding, and the pressure mounts accordingly. As the calamities befall them, there are no revelations or Hollywood speeches or screenwriter dot-connecting. Nichols is content to let you be the judge of what it all means.
This was Echol’s first film, and that may explain its brevity (about 90 minutes). The result is some backstory that is a tad rushed, but nonetheless, this is a gripping, thoughtful picture.