Monday, March 2, 2009

Dead Man's Shoes

Dir. Shane Meadows

Viewed: From the Couch

UK director Shane Meadows is building a powerful line-up of unflinching views into the worst (and occasionally best) of contemporary, white, lower-to-middle class life in England. Right in the middle of this lies Dead Man's Shoes, a gut wrenching revenge film that leaves you devastated but nevertheless takes you on a heartfelt and often darkly funny ride. The movie is filled with conflicting emotions, the kind that are at the heart of most revenge movies. These stories always center around a person who just can't buy into Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of forgiveness and turning the other cheek. The first thing we're told in Dead Man's Shoes is that Richard cannot allow these people to pray for forgiveness and be allowed into heaven after what they've done. Grainy footage teases out bits of the crimes that have been committed against Richard's mentally handicapped brother by a circle of friends who comprise the town's dope smoking/dealing losers. These flashbacks are strategically placed throughout the movie and are constantly changing our perspective on Richard's crusade. For 90 minutes you are reexamining your own morals and asking yourself at what point can you justify what Richard, our supposed hero, is doing.

A large part of what makes these questions imperative is that we're given such a charismatic bunch of fuck-ups to follow. Richard, our avenging angel, is kind of creepy -- an army vet who is more than a little unstable and as tightly wound as they come. But thankfully Paddy Considine plays him with a soulfulness and gives Richard a gentle madness that saves the character from being another Travis Bickle knock-off (the green jacket that Richard wears throughout may as well be a hand-me-down from Mr. Bickle). Mr. Considine has some god-given gifts to add to Richard, too. Rather than the hard edges of a Clint Eastwood, Considine's features are practically boyish. It just adds to the skewed perspective the movie plays in which continues with our bad guys -- most of whom come off as more lovable loser than murderous bastard. They do deal drugs to the locals but the only violence they seem capable of would be in a bar fight after too many beers and bong hits. It's a perfect way to flip the audience's expectations on its head. In all revenge films you're waiting for the hero to take out the scumbags that done him wrong, but here Meadows makes these guys almost likable -- putting everyone and the movie in this moral grey zone. So when Richard starts killing them one by one you're left slack-jawed rather than cheering, waiting for the next flashback to find out a little bit more what exactly happened to his brother that day. And sure enough each one does get a little bit worse.

I do have a small problem with these flashbacks. While there are eight people credited with Super 8 footage on the film, I believe the honest to goodness Super 8 footage is found solely during a great opening credits sequence set to a killer Smog tune (part of a killer overall soundtrack featuring choice Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, M. Ward and Calexico cuts). The flashbacks strewn throughout the film appear to be digitally manipulated to look black and white, grainy and worn and the effect is less than inspired. There's always some sort of technique used to separate the flashback footage in a movie -- sometimes it's simply black and white, sometimes it's over saturated color or different film stock or whathaveyou, most times, even here, it's distracting and unnecessary. The rest of the film your typical sunless England shots that provide that "gritty" and "real" look that seems rather effortless from this part of the world nowadays. But Meadows does provide this feel in an honest way through his meticulous eye for detail in the shitty apartments and bars, tiny suburban houses and middle of nowhere farm houses in the same way directors like Alexander Payne and Andrew Bujalski have used their surroundings and perfectly placed empty bottles to give their films that authentic and well worn feeling.

Primarily though Dead Man's Shoes is a showcase for Paddy Considine and his trail of dead. There is a well edited sequence half-way through when three of the marked men are holed up in a house, already fittingly paranoid before they're unwittingly drugged by Considine and experience a hilarious downward spiral in their tiny living room before they meet their pitiful demise. It's a scene that encompasses the entire feel of the movie in ten or so minutes. We're laughing as they huddle in the bathroom together (one taking a shit, one taking a bath), no one wanting to even sit in an adjacent room by themselves for fear Considine will pop out of the shadows and kill them. We laugh as they begin to stumble into a drug stupor but we laugh through empathy and in the back of our minds, as awful as they were that one day to Richard's brother we know these guys -- we know how easy it can be to slip into mob mentality with only a half dozen close friends and a head full of illicit substances -- we saw the look in their eyes as each one found out that it was Andrew's brother that out for revenge -- they all knew that they did something wrong. And when Richard does show up, cutting through the fog of their drug addled heads, he is the darkness, he is the grim reaper and not Charles Bronson, and no one is laughing, cheering or smiling when he does what he has to do.

Despite the title, the posters and some of the raves from more bloodthirsty sources, Dead Man's Shoes isn't a gory movie or even all that violent. A lot of the death's take place off screen but the movie has an uncomfortable but kinda thrilling intensity due in large part to Considine and the other character's paranoia. There's no lingering on tortured faces, but like Funny Games this one could also fall into the anti-horror genre in that there's no fun kills or anti-hero to root for. Except unlike Funny Games the movie isn't an experiment, self-aware or clinical in the least and there is a lesson to be learned from all the killing. There is a soul in Considine's Richard and each time he cuts a man down it takes a toll. In Dead Man's Shoes we see the cost of a human life taken to those around them and to those who take it. No one comes out clean but no one seems capable of doing anything but what they do and because they know they'll never change - death can also come with a certain measure of acceptance when you meet it face to face. It becomes a darkly beautiful thing.

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