Thursday, May 6, 2010

Retro Review: Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

I tend not to hide my admiration for Shane Meadows. As far as the pseudo-indie (or pseudo-studio, depending on your point of view) British filmmakers go, his films tend to get overlooked. Danny Boyle (deservedly) gets the mainstream vote, Mike Leigh (deservedly) gets the critical vote, and Ken Loach (deservedly) gets the political vote. Shane Meadows' films sort of occupy the middle of this triangle - they are accessible enough to be mainstream, masterly filmed to be critic favourites, and tend to carry enough political subtext to make you raise your fist against the injustices of the world. Perhaps none of his films capture this as well as Dead Man's Shoes.

The premise and the story is so simple, it's made for pitch-fests: Richard comes back from military duty to avenge his simpleton brother, who was bullied by the local tough guys. That's it - the whole film revolves around this and there are no subplots, no digressions ... a perfect revenge flick.

Richard is played with ferocious intensity by Paddy Considine, who also co-wrote the script with Meadows. He returns to his hometown somewhere in East Midlands (the usual setting for Meadows) and hunts his brother's tormentors one by one. He stalks them at night, wearing a grey jumpsuit and a gas mask - he actually resembles the sand people from Star Wars. His brother accompanies him from a safe distance and once the baddies figure out who Richard is, they start to panic at his absolutely-don't-give-a-fuck attitude. In fact, Richard is so tough (without trying hard) that when he talks for the first time, you jump in your seat with the hapless character who receives his verbal vitriol:

Soon-to-be-dead dude: "What're you looking at?"
Richard: "Looking at you, you cunt!"

Meadows not only shares the contextual similarities with the aforementioned directors, he shares some of their strengths as well. Danny Boyle is probably the director that best uses film soundtrack (sorry Scorsese and Tarantino fans). Meadows is not far behind - as soon as a character is killed with an axe (off screen, but we see the aftermath), it cuts to a sweet acoustic indie. His use of score is also very effective, though the subtlety with which he uses it gets lost this time around - sometimes it feels the music really wants us to think of one thing in particular without giving us room for interpretation. The improvisational dialogue (a trademark of Mike Leigh) is also evident in the way the characters interact with each other - nothing feels "written", it's all very natural.

It is also one of the most beautifully shot films - as Richard and his brother Anthony walk from town to town, traversing over lush green hills, it is difficult not to be moved by its beauty. I have to admit, at one point I was expecting the Von Trapp kids to dance their way across the screen and hoping that Richard would hack them to pieces ... for artistic purposes, of course.

Dead Man's Shoes is not Meadows' best film - that honour belongs to This Is England (2006). But, it is a fantastic, taut and brief thriller with a heart as big as the hills in the film.

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