Dead Man's Shoes
The revenge drama is a strange genre. The most effective examples of the genre are those that use the genre's structure to question the violent impulses that exist within every human; however, the best-known entries stack the sympathy deck so blantantly that they do little more than justify their own bloodlust. (Think Unforgiven
for the former, Death Wish
for the latter.) Shane Meadows's Dead Man's Shoes
does the former via tonal subversion. It's an interesting tactic, and I'm certainly sympathetic towards Meadows's intent (the most reprehensible film I've seen in the last twelve months is the vile Lady Vengeance
, which is the latter example writ large and Trojan-horsed as serious art). The resulting film, though, is a thing rife with critical flaws.
The plot is so simple that it hardly seems worth a mention. There's a guy named Richard (Paddy Considine), see? And some hoods were mean to his mentally retarded younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell), see? And now he's going to exact his revenge, see? And... that's about it. There's some splintered flashbacks that interrupt the film's dogged progress towards its endgame, but for the most part it's this guy stalking these other guys.
This simplicity has its function: It allows Meadows to indulge his favorite theme - the intimacy of the everyday. With films like TwentyFourSeven
and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands
, Meadows showed himself to be a cinematic naturalist of the first order. Dead Man's Shoes
, then, sees him applying the template of naturalism to a genre that would seem to obviate it. I can see where Meadows is coming from with this; by grounding the drama, Meadows removes the vicarious thrills inherent in the genre, thereby leaving only the drab, depressing ugliness at the heart of it all.
A lot of this naturalism is used on the loosely organized gang of thugs that slighted Anthony so long ago. We observe them hanging out, shooting the shit and otherwise doing all those things that lads do. Rather than the sneering, brutish monsters of Death Wish
and its ilk, Meadows shows the perpetrators to be believable human beings, at times even likeable ones; aside from the occasional criminality of their actions, they could be any group of slacker buddies. This muddies the righteous sense of approval we're supposed to feel at their deaths, as well as giving credence to Richard's last speech.
It's here that I start seeing what's wrong with Meadows's approach. The characters are recognizable, all right - they're recognizable fuck-ups, and Considine's lucky to have to take them on, rather than some people who know what they're doing. Dead Man's Shoes
has a couple of moments that exist solely because if they were changed, there wouldn't be a movie. The most blatant of these is this: After the toughs find out where Richard is staying, they attempt an ambush. The idea is to lure Richard out into the open where lead tough Sonny (Gary Stretch) can take him out with a rifle. Things get confused, and Sonny's first shot misses. Richard just stands there and glowers at him. My question is, why doesn't Sonny reload? He's standing right there, for God's sake.
The lopsided nature of the conflict points towards the paradoxical nature of Dead Man's Shoes
's tonal consistency. If the thrills are removed, then it denudes the action and shows it for what it is; unfortunately, it also leaches the tension. Without tension, there's no drama. Without drama, no amount of true-sounding dialogue or small character moments can keep the film from providing no more than what its synopsis suggests: there's a man who's angry and he kills some other people because he's angry. Meadows intends to show us that violence in response to previous violence is still needless violence that solves nothing, and he does that well. Sacrificing interest to make your point, however, isn't the best artistic tactic.
What's more, Meadows isn't above the kind of emotional pornography that mars most second-rate revenge dramas. The modern-day scenes of the villains show them to be slackers; the flashback scenes, though, paint a different picture. Sonny, in particular, is two different characters. In the present, he's a weak-minded bumbler, but in the past, he's a thug and an ogre. His aimless viciousness in the flashback scenes is so calculated (at one point, he brings up the spectre of homosexual rape, if for no other reason than it's required of all British crime dramas to allude to it as a humbling of manliness) that it seems borne of desperation. Desperation, too, informs the portrayal of Anthony as mentally retarded. There isn't any good reason for Anthony to be thus handicapped, save for the sympathy it generates. Taking these kinds of shortcuts makes you wonder how truly confident Meadows and Considine (the latter of whom also co-wrote the screenplay) were in their material.
There's a lot that's worthwhile about Dead Man's Shoes
. Considine brings some surprising shades to his one-track character. I like the way his relationship with Anthony is handled; the nature of it is obvious from the start, but it reinforces the idea that Richard isn't doing much more than chasing phantoms. A lot of the downtime scenes between the villains are amusing in a low-key way. And the final confrontation, where Richard sees his self-vindicating mindset blown to hell ("You were supposed to be a monster"), makes the film's point stick like a needle in the brain. (I'll excuse the portentous choral soundtrack that pops up at this point.) Alas, one has to comfortably inhabit a genre before one can subvert it; in attempting to undermine the tenets of the revenge drama, Meadows instead undermines himself.