Dead Man’s Shoes first published by Movie Gazette, published 2005
Shane Meadows’ previous Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) was, as its title would suggest, an attempt to transplant the American western onto English soil – but the hybrid which emerged was a disappointing romantic comedy that almost ruined the director’s reputation (carefully built upon the improvised do-it-yourself naturalism of his 1997 debut Twenty Four Seven and his 1999 follow-up A Room for Romeo Brass). His comeback Dead Man’s Shoes, with its combination of small-town retribution and the supernatural, is far more successful in importing the oater sensibilities of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) to the wild West Midlands, while bringing back from the dead the sort of hardman grittiness not seen since such seventies classics as Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and the Michael Winner’s Death Wish films.
After years of military service abroad, Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his Midlands village with the sole purpose of avenging his younger, disabled brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell), who had been bullied and humiliated during Richard’s absence by the brutal Sonny (Gary Stretch) and his gang of drug dealers. Over the course of a few short days, as Anthony watches from the shadowy background, Richard first uses nocturnal pranks to unnerve the gang, before threatening them more directly (“I’m gonna fuckin’ hit you all”), and then finally executing them one by one in cold blood. Only Mark (Paul Hurstfield), husband, father-of-two, and the last target on the list, reveals the full monstrosity of Anthony’s treatment, and confronts Richard with his own monstrousness.
At a time when retributive wars in the Middle East have become all the rage, it is unsurprising that revenge has also returned to our cinemas, with recent American films like Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher (2004), Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) and Kevin Bray’s remake of Walking Tall (1973/2004) all exhibiting a gung-ho enthusiasm for extrajudicial retaliation (and all featuring protagonists who, like Richard, have a military background). Yet unlike those film’s heroes, Richard is neither a Christ figure (in one scene he expressly denies that he is Jesus – or indeed the Devil), nor an agent of divine justice (the film’s first line is “God will forgive them, He’ll forgive them and allow them into heaven – I can’t live with that”) – and while there is no doubt that his judge-jury-and-executioner attitude towards vigilantism is entirely reactionary, both his morality and his sanity come to be called into question by the film. So Dead Man’s Shoes walks a fine line in its politics, inviting viewers to revel in the inventive symmetry of Richard’s bloodletting before revealing the bestial irrationality of it all. This may involve a degree of having one’s cake and eating it too, but it is certainly preferable to the unthinking heroisation (if not to say canonisation) of revenge that we have been getting of late from the other side of the pond.
Originally conceived as a comedy, Dead Man’s Shoes is a powerful drama (although lightly peppered with gallow’s humour) in which a community is revisited by the sins of its past, and forced to pay the price. It is also without doubt Meadows’ finest feature to date – thanks largely to the central performance of his long-time friend (and co-writer) Considine, whose barely contained fury brings a near explosive tension to every scene. Sonny and his thugs are rattled by Richard even before he has begun his violent campaign against them, and the sheer intensity of Considine’s on-screen presence makes it easy to see why. He embodies the kind of unhinged determination not seen since Robert De Niro in his Taxi Driver heyday, propelling Dead Man’s Shoes far beyond its low budget (under three quarters of a million pounds), its makeshift script and its genre roots.
Summary: A high plains drifter metes out hard justice to the wild West Midlands in this gritty revenger’s tragedy.