You can do anything, but lay off of Judge Adam Arseneau's dead man's shoes.
Revenge is in us all.
"God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that."
With these opening lines, we know all we need to know about Dead Man's Shoes. There's revenge, and then there's revenge with a capital "arrrrrrrgh." Dead Man's Shoes is the latter.
Facts of the Case
Richard (Paddy Considine) has taken care of his simple-minded younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) his entire life and kept him out of trouble, but after Richard leaves the small rural village to join up with the Army, Anthony is left to fend for himself and falls in with a bad crowd of low-level drug dealers and thugs. Things go bad for Richard, who is taken advantage of and humiliated by the gang.
Now returned from the Army, Richard aims to settle the score with Anthony's old mates with a ferocity and viciousness that surpasses anything the gang could ever expect. Richard sets off to systematically humiliate and embarrass his prey, moving onto more sinister and vicious punishments …
Revenge seems a quaint, harmless concept compared to the sheer single-minded aggression flowing though the eyes of Richard in Dead Man's Shoes. Paddy Considine has a stare like a junkyard dog, full of intensity, menace, and barely-suppressed restraint to tear out your throat, like a scruffy Clive Owen strung out on PCP. Richard does not simply get even, he actually rages all over his prey with merciless efficiency—and we only learn the extent of his anger in brief flashbacks through the film, as the full extent of Anthony's mistreatment is illustrated. Once we finally understand the back story, Richard's vendetta quest makes a lot more sense, kind of.
There is a fine line between revenge and madness, and Dead Man's Shoes takes a highlighter to it. Most revenge films put the objects of vengeance in the wrong and the good guy in the right, then let the bodies fall where they may, but this film enjoys dancing in murkier waters. The more punishment Richard doles out, the less sympathetic his character becomes and, indeed, Richard himself realizes exactly what is happening to him. He gets more and more like the people he sets out to punish.
That's really the meat of the film. We see bad people getting what they deserve, even if it offends our moral senses. Though not overly violent visually, the film has a dark and brutal undertone that gives Dead Man's Shoes a dangerous and aggressive edge unrivaled by most glitzy Hollywood revenge epics. The film unfolds fast, with Richard tormenting his prey through intimidation, practical jokes, and finally violence before finally coming to terms with his own actions. The ending is where things come unraveled slightly, which is the weakest part of the film, although it makes sense in the context as a whole.
There is a lot to like about this film. Well-acted with witty dialogue, full of tension and comeuppance, it strikes all the right notes to be a satisfying drama without overstepping its boundaries into absurdity. With a small cast, a minimum of bells and whistles, and the raw, unadulterated intensity of Paddy Considine, Dead Man's Shoes will not go down as a classic, but it definitely deserves attention.
Visually, the transfer is extremely strong, with good detail, average black levels, solid color reproduction, and no visual defects or compression artifacts to be seen. Shot in a hand-held style, Dead Man's Shoes has a fantastic ad-libbed spontaneity about it that oozes style, with natural overlapping dialogue, quick retorts, and verbal gags that flow naturally from its characters. The flashback sequences are done in faux-vintage film-stock effect, complete with black-and-white scratchy visuals, and the somber, elegant cinematography framing the rural English backdrop is beautiful.
For audio, we get a timid 2.0 channel and a strong 5.1 surround track with solid bass response, center-oriented dialogue, and excellent environmental use of the rear channels. Some of the dialogue is muddled, but this is due to the overlapping conversation style rather than a flaw of the disc. That being said, it would have been especially helpful to include English subtitles to help decipher the occasionally-thick rural British slang being tossed about, but no matter. The score is a mesmerizing blend of spacey acoustic guitar ballads set over accordion, headache-inducing throbbing bass and dark and deep chamber music. It is a fascinating and eclectic score that matches the material perfectly.
An audio commentary with director Shane Meadows, writer/actor Paddy Considine, and producer Mark Herbert gives an insightful look into the production and intentions of the filmmakers, who are well-spoken and articulate. Also included are a 25-minute featurette with director Shane Meadows, behind-the-scenes footage, a deleted scene, and an alternate ending. Alternate endings always make me apprehensive, implying an uncertainty on the part of the filmmaker on how to end a film and, indeed, the scrapped ending is extremely lousy. It's a fairly decent collection of extras for a single-disc feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Too introspective to be considered a pure action flick, but too grisly and savage in tone to be easily accessible, Dead Man's Shoes is a puzzle of a film. Were it more violent and gruesome, it would meet with some measure of mainstream success for being action-oriented, but Dead Man's Shoes is far too thoughtful for such cheap parlances. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly head-scratching or profound about the film to puzzle over and psychoanalyze beyond the tenets of revenge and madness, subjects which have been handled better in numerous other films before.
Dead Man's Shoes is a nice return to form for indie-darling director Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, This Is England). Somber and solid, Dead Man's Shoes is as satisfying and complex a revenge thriller as you are likely to find. Unless you're a fan of Park Chan-Wook films, that is.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
• Audio Commentary with Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine, and Mark Herbert
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