“Dead Man’s Shoes” has been playing at various international festivals, and has been described as revitalizing the slasher film in much the same way that “28 Days Later” recently did to the zombie genre. There is some truth to this, as “Dead Man’s Shoes” does resemble the basic stalker film in several ways, albeit told from the tortured perspective of the killer. However, the film is far more complex than this, utilizing a believable setting and creating a gang of loathsome yet realistic characters whose executions may or may not be deserved.
Director Shane Meadows locates the action in rural Northern England, adding a touch of gritty realism, and showing the same eye for the idiosyncrasies of British life that he did in his previous films “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” and “Twentyfourseven”. Meadows is almost without peer at bringing to life some of the darker aspects of British culture, yet at the same time serving them up with an injection of fond amusement, and it is this which gives “Dead Man’s Shoes” its bleak, moving heart.
The film begins as two brothers return to the small farming community where they grew up. Richard (Paddy Considine, “In America”), the older brother is quiet and intense, having just come out of a spell in the army, whilst Anthony (Toby Kebbell) is mildly retarded and innocent. It quickly becomes apparent that the reason for their return is Richard’s desire to wreak vengeance upon a gang of local drug dealers who committed a horrifying offense against Anthony. As the past is gradually revealed via flashbacks, Richard stalks and kills his targets, whittling their number down using a variety of techniques and weapons.
“Dead Man’s Shoes” certainly contains several of the trappings of the slasher film, such as the gas mask that Richard dons during the murders, and the methods in which he isolates his victims before killing them. However, the film also has similarities with revenge films such as “Death Wish” and “Straw Dogs”, given that the victims are criminals, drug dealers, and worse. Meadows puts in a great deal of effort in creating realistic characters, none of whom are pleasant or even remotely innocent. It is this moral shading which gives the film a dark ambiguity and allows the audience to decide whether to side with Richard or to feel any pity for those he kills.
Although this does make the film very nihilistic and bleak, Meadows does treat the whole affair with a dark sense of humor. This comes both from the amusing incompetence and the staggeringly low nature of the drug dealers, as well as from their semi-improvised conversations. The script is realistic and in places quite funny, which again serves to accentuate the viewer’s discomfort at the resulting carnage.
Meadows is a highly skilled director, not only of people, but also in terms of aesthetics. He imbues the English countryside with a serene beauty, capturing both the decayed, inbred feel of the small community and the rolling hills. This is nicely contrasted with the drug dealers themselves, who clearly believe themselves to be worldly, yet are little more than small fish in a very small pond. The overall effect is to create a portrait of the dark heart of Britain, a cancerous evil that lurks behind the picturesque faÃ§ade of idealized rural life.
Meadows handles the action and scare scenes very well, showing restraint where necessary, and throwing in enough blood and violence to add impact at the appropriate points. The tension throughout the film is built up skillfully, and the way that Richard’s actions escalate from terrifying the thugs to brutally killing them is never less than gripping. In addition to this, the flashbacks and childhood footage of Richard and Anthony are sparingly used; they never slow the proceedings down, and Meadow’s use of grainy home video and black and white film gives these scenes a fittingly sorrowful feel. The only caveat I would have comes from a drug trip scene, which is rather clumsy and whilst giving the viewer a sense of disorientation, is somewhat gratuitous and unrealistic.
The acting is superb, and gives the film a huge boost. Paddy Considine (who also co-wrote the film) is perfect as Richard, giving an incredibly intense performance as a man whose hatred slowly turns him into a monster. Whenever he’s onscreen, the film is incredibly captivating, and the viewer is truly on edge, awaiting his next move or violent outburst. The rest of the cast are generally improvised, and whilst at times a little off key, fit the tone of the film very well, adding to that overall sense of realism.
Overall, “Dead Man’s Shoes” is excellent, and one of the best British films of recent times. Moving, harrowing, violent, and at times funny, it pulls no punches and gives both a chilling insight into the mind of a killer and a bleak depiction of revenge that is every bit as compelling and eloquent as more elaborate films like “Memento”.
Shane Meadows (director) / Paddy Considine, Paul Fraser (additional material), Shane Meadows (screenplay)
CAST: Paddy Considine …. Richard
Gary Stretch …. Sonny
Toby Kebbell …. Anthony
Emily Aston …. Patti
Neil Bell …. Soz