“God will forgive them. He'll forgive them, & allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that.”
Revenge movies have been popular over the last couple of years, & now adding to the likes of Kill Bill & OldBoy, Dead Man’s Shoes adds a uniquely British perspective & tone to make a welcome addition to the genre.
Eight years after he left his hometown in Northern England to join the army, Richard (Paddy Considine) returns with his younger brother Anthony (Tony Kebbell). Whilst Richard was away the mentally retarded Anthony had fallen in with a gang of thugs & drug-dealers who took advantage of his simple nature, so Richard has some business to take care of – a violent & intimidating revenge.
Since his debut “TwentyFourSeven”, Shane Meadows has carved himself something of a niche as one of the most interesting & important British directors working today. His second film “A Room for Romeo Brass” built on his initial promise & showcased a stunning turn by Paddy Considine (similarly one of the finest British actors around) as well as a talent for getting great, naturalistic performances from children. The all-star comedy “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” was intermittently interesting but something of a misfire, so it’s great to be able to report that with his fourth feature “Dead Man’s Shoes” Meadows has regained momentum & delivered probably his finest film to date.
Whilst most British directors tend to work in the south of the country, Meadows is quite unapologetically a Northerner & bases his films around locations & characters he is familiar with, giving them a tone & style not often seen on the cinema screen. His films tend to have a naturalistic & realist style – although the events they portray are by no means restricted to the normal or everyday, & the way in which unusual events are presented in such a raw, almost documentary style gives them an extra frisson. A signature is his remarkable assurance with tone, & scenes can veer dangerously from comedy to crackling menace at the drop of a hat – not unlike the “Funny how?” scene in Goodfellas.
The plot summary of “Dead Man’s Shoes” reads like slasher movie 101, with a gang picked off one by one by a killer seeking revenge for something they did in the past. But Meadows isn’t interested in the story as a simple means for indulging in some gory stalk & slash scenes, but rather in the way these events would take their toll on both victims & killer. The director grew up around crime & violence (in the extras, he remembers how he once had the ambition to go to jail, until he was witness to a particularly brutal beating), & he brings to this material a first-hand intensity & believability. Particularly telling is the way in which the gang reacts to the threat. Even though the significantly outnumber Richard, once they understand the seriousness of his intent the hard-ass exteriors fade & they crumble into fear. I can think of few films that so convincingly peel away aggressive masculine fronts & shows the weak coward hiding underneath.
The structure of the film is particularly well put together, slowly revealing key information about what exactly happened to Anthony to play with shifting loyalties between the different characters. The first hour is good stuff – if a tad standard revenge movie plotting – with Richard menacing the gang, slowly inflicting on them the same torture they inflicted on Anthony, building to a stunning drugged-up sequence. But the real measure of the film – & what earns it a modern classic status in my book – is the final half hour, with Richard going after the final member of the gang. A genuinely powerful emotional content is added, with complex moral ambiguities & cunning plot turns which lead to a stunning & unsettling final confrontation.
The performances throughout are generally very good (one or two of the gang members are slightly wooden, but only in a couple of scenes). Obvious mention has to go to Paddy Considine, who co-wrote the script with Meadows & delivers an amazing, furious yet brilliantly controlled performance as Richard. But it would be wrong to overlook Toby Kebbell, who handles the potentially embarrassing character with genuine aplomb & adds real heart to the film, particularly in his fine scenes with Considine.
“Dead Man’s Shoes” is a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking, a stark, utterly gripping, disturbing & powerful drama shot through with streaks of humour & horror. Whilst it’s not one to watch if you’re after an easy evenings entertainment or wanting a load of splatter, its intense & believable style gains with repeat viewing & is not easily forgotten.
Optimum’s UK DVD is in R2/PAL format, & comes with an impressive anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, & strong Dolby 5.1. A generous package of extras kicks off with a worthwhile commentary track by Meadows, Considine, & Producer Mark Herbert. After that, there’s a selection of deleted & extended scenes, including an alternate version of the finale, a selection of scenes from the graphic novel, music video, plus trailer reel. There’s a making of called “In Shane’s Shoes”, containing some interesting interviews, on-set footage, going right through to the premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Rounding it out is “Northern Soul”, a 25-minute short directed by Meadows, & starring “Dead Man’s Shoes” actors Toby Kebbell & Jo Hartley. This is a witty yet moving tale of a guy who thinks he is Britain’s best wrestler despite having never been in the ring. Comparing Kebbell’s turn here to in the main feature puts a good perspective on just how good his performances both are. As if that wasn’t enough, you can also find out-takes from the commentary as an Easter Egg. A great package for a great film.