Shane Meadows’ shot Dead Man’s Shoes in about three weeks. His back-to-basics, guerilla film-making with semi improvised script and acting paints an eerie picture of small town England.
Co-writer and lead actor Paddy Considine gives a career-defining performance as ‘Richard’, a man who has returned from the army to his small hometown in the north of England to seek revenge on a group of local thugs that bullied his younger, special-needs brother.
Recalling tragedies from his own community where the victims had all but been forgotten and the guilty still walked around free of the consequences, Meadows said that above all, the film is about justice. ‘Not justice of the government or of the police – human justice; justice of the heart. And if it came back to your door…would you be able to live with it?’
From the opening sequence, it is clear that this is a personal film, about something deeply tragic. Richard and his brother Anthony traipse over the countryside, intercut with old super-8 home video footage of their childhood and long gone days of innocence. It manages to express a fair amount with very minimal dialogue, or even none at all.
Gradually, black and white flashback sequences reveal the extent of the harrowing abuse Anthony suffered as he is unwillingly initiated into a circle of wannabe gangsters as somewhat of a piss-taken, play-thing under the guise of being an honorary member.
Genuinely paternal and deeply tormented, Richard is intensely intimidating when faced with these men, casually playing both hilarious and unnerving mind games with them to begin with, letting them know exactly what he’s capable of (and giving them all some terrifying idea of what’s in store for them).
This is incredibly articulated in a near-iconic confrontation scene between Richard and the gang’s leader ‘Sunny’, summed simply: ‘It’s beyond words, mate.’ As Sunny later remarks to the gang: ‘…he’s not the same guy that left.’ Once they realise who it is they’re dealing with, it is as if a death-stalking black cloud hangs over them that none can escape. ‘He ain’t going away fellers…’
There is a blend of social realist drama and 70s revenge thriller, but the heart and emotional drive of the film elevates it high above its genre trappings. Despite its bleak moments and equally disturbing acts of revenge (including a seminal acid sequence, created by actors deprived of a couple days sleep, being legally the closest thing to recreating the effects of tripping), there is also a great deal of perfectly balanced, darkly comic relief that never steps out of beat. The car these ‘bad-men’ band together in, for instance, is nothing short of ridiculous.
The bad guys, while certainly bad, are also very human, with a natural banter between them (the actors having taken some time to have lived together). Once the ramifications of their actions start to sink in, these lowly characters are made all the more believable as they reflect on their deeds, strung-out, tired and afraid.
There’s a sincere and palpable sense of pain and madness. Paddy Considine’s ‘Richard’ seems, at times, part Travis Bickle, part John Rambo and even part Michael Myers. Toby Kebbel (in his film debut) brings a subtle, understated and pitch-perfect accompaniment in the supporting role of ‘Anthony’.
Alongside its clear focus on motivations for justice and the consequential reality of all out revenge, the film also depicts men of small town reputation and the unchecked criminality you find there. Taking a strong, sobering look at the harsh roles within working class masculinity and at the dark side of casual drug use, ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ may seem a tale well-trodden, but few tell it as with as deep and thoughtful an impact as this.
By Damien Allsopp