Dead Man's Shoes
English Title: Dead Man's Shoes
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Warp Films, Big Arty Productions, Film4/Optimum Releasing
Director: Shane Meadows
Producer(s): Mark Herbert
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
Runtime: 90 minutes
Richard is a disaffected soldier who returns to his hometown for one last mission: to track down the men who tormented Anthony, his younger brother with learning difficulties. One by one, Anthony’s abusers – small time drug dealers, petty criminals and wannabe gangsters – fall prey to Richard as he seeks revenge. Paranoia and neurosis build to a final showdown set against the desolation of the rural Midlands landscape.
Arguably Meadows’ most distinctive feature to date, the low-budget and largely improvised Dead Man’s Shoes was conceived of as a personal riposte to the compromised production of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002). Lurching between lairy humour, mournful visual poetry and genuinely disturbing moments of violence and psychological trauma, Dead Man’s Shoes is a singular distillation of Meadows’ under-appreciated talent for surreal social abstraction. While some critics found the rudimentary revenge plot overheated, Dead Man’s Shoes is more productively understood as a neo-gothic psychodrama.
Shot in Derbyshire, Meadows’ exacting sense of place has rarely felt more intuitive. Attentive to the brittle landscape’s resonant spaces and overlooked textures, the film's stark imagery is as haunted as any of its guilt-ridden characters. As rural expanse encroaches upon the small town of Matlock, the sense of stasis and social decay is palpable. Meadows’ social critique remains largely implicit in the world of Dead Man’s Shoes. Its vision of life on the social and economic peripheries is almost hermetically sealed. Coupled with generic nods to the Western, the film’s final image – a sweeping aerial shot of the Peak District ghost town – serves to underscore its unearthly conflation of metaphysical insularity, formal realism and mythic portent.
The richness of the film is found in the interaction between its characters. For example, a simultaneously grotesque and hilarious scene in which two low-grade drug dealers read aloud to each other from a dirty magazine acts as an appropriate litmus test for the viewer’s susceptibility to the raw, earthy humour of life’s minor players. In keeping with the film’s moral relativism, dissolute rogues like Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), Soz (Neil Bell), and ringleader Sonny (Gary Stretch) are increasingly sympathetic as their murderous antagonist wreaks his revenge. Elsewhere, Toby Kebbell is quietly impressive as Anthony, while Considine provides his unsmiling character with appropriately-focused yet unhinged menace. Broader political commentary is not entirely absent, however – one of the film’s most uncanny images is that of Richard clad in a depersonalizing, military-issue gas mask. Violently disturbed, the mental health of this malevolent paratrooper is explicable in part by the trauma of his presumed service in the Middle East. Richard’s final acknowledgement – ‘now I’m the monster’ – underscores the film’s thematic preoccupation with the violent return of the repressed.
If the troubling relationship between masculinity and violence remains a recurrent theme in Meadows’ work, in Dead Man’s Shoes it is augmented through shifting and disoriented psychological states – the sequence in which Richard ruthlessly spikes the gang’s tea with powerful hallucinogens, for example, is rendered with unnerving accuracy. Expressionist touches are also to the fore, as in flashback sequences that are ambiguous in both origin and reliability. The viewer is never certain whether Anthony is a supernatural figure or one of Richard’s unsound mental projections. The film’s gothic ambience is underscored when a stoned Herbie tellingly describes Richard as ‘like a ghost’. The film’s dark tone is intensified by its diverse and tone-shifting soundtrack, helped, no doubt, by the fact that it was the first feature by Warp Films, aligned to Warp Records, who produced, and Chris Cunningham, responsible for music videos and documentaries such as All Tomorrow’s Parties (2009). Warp also co-produced Meadows’ modishly soundtracked This is England (2006) and produced the television spin-off series, This is England ‘86 (2010). Dead Man’s Shoes is unquestionably a mood piece, but it more than justifies Meadows’ continued faith in his instinctive working methods.
Author of this review: Martin Fradley
Peer reviewer: Martin Fradley