Dead Man's Shoes

on May 12, 2006 by Wade Major
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English indies dealing with the travails of working-class Brits have become something of a genre unto themselves, fostering a virtual pantheon of world-class filmmakers (Stephen Frears, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke) and actors (Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Ray Winstone) in the process. Director Shane Meadows, however, has carved himself a rather cozy sub-genre by focusing almost exclusively on the rigors of life in the Midlands, the semi-rural region just roughly north of London where life's hardships seem curiously at odds with the provincial surroundings.

To Meadows, that's a potent modern parallel to the American West, though exploiting the irony on film has proved a difficult trick with ambitious but spottily successful pictures like "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands." But in "Dead Man's Shoes," Meadows delivers. Pugnacious, poetic and compellingly raw, it's a simple but unforgettable look at the roots and costs of frontier justice at a time when frontiers no longer exist except in the hearts and minds of men.

The always brilliant Paddy Considine -- who co-scripted the film with Meadows -- stars as Richard, a local who has returned after many years of military service to wreak unholy revenge on a gang of local thugs for an unspecified offense perpetrated against his mentally-handicapped younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) during his absence. As Richard slowly tightens the screws on his victims, softening them up with pranks and taunts before mercilessly unleashing his wrath, Meadows employs grainy black-and-white flashbacks to fill in the missing pieces.

But for the backdrop, it's a plot that could have been extracted from a Sergio Leone film: moral rectitude poisoned by an atmosphere and an environment in which no one -- not even the innocent -- are truly without blemish. Morose, to be sure, but it makes for some gripping drama here, thanks to a ferociously effective performance from Considine that turns the smallest of gestures and the gentlest of line readings into a controlled burn that takes no prisoners, literally or figuratively.

Unfortunately, getting past the heavy regional accents and sometimes indecipherable slang can sometimes be a chore. It by no means diminishes the film's effectiveness, but could be problematic in building the kind of word-of-mouth needed to bolster its release. Fortunately, there's always DVD, where it's certain that "Dead Man's Shoes" will continue to build its reputation for years yet to come. Starring Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch and Toby Kebbell. Directed by Shane Meadows. Written by Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows. Produced by Mark Herbert. A Magnolia release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 86 min

Tags: Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell, Shane Meadows. Written by Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows, Mark Herbert, Magnolia, Drama
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