The revenge thriller, where a morally dubious protagonist avenges the wrongs of the past in bloody and retributive fashion, is as much an institution in cinema as romantic drama and hard boiled noir, whether in the form of big name blockbuster or straight to DVD exploitation gorn. From Charles Bronson and Death Wish to Arnie flicks and into the realm of Western, it is a plotline well trodden to the point of cliché. This is one of the reasons why 2005’s Dead Man’s Shoes provides such a welcome breath of fresh air, a unique take on the formula from a filmmaker with a very different focus.
The story, as you’d expect, is relatively straightforward. Former soldier Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his home town in the Midlands, possessions in a bag over his shoulder and without a roof over his head, with only one thing on his mind. He intends to get even with a local group of would-be gangsters who toyed with and brutalized his mentally handicapped younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell). Starting with intimidation and a series of darkly funny pranks, Richard’s quest escalates from uneasy horseplay into psychological warfare and, in shocking fashion, sheer violence.
Coming from Shane Meadows, distinctive British director here helming his fifth film, the tone and style is typically non-Hollywood, taking a fly on the wall and heavily improvisational approach towards character establishing conversations and sprinkling the quieter moments with notably authentic, meandering dialogue and humor. The result is a realistic, gritty edge to a film that then cranks up the atmosphere and tension with unpredictable turns. Forget smug snake mobsters and dead eyed henchmen, the bad guys, led by Gary Stretch’s Sonny, are a gaggle of pot smoking losers and deadbeats frequenting squalid and Spartan apartments and social clubs and driving a ludicrous clown car. In short, they are completely believable as real people, a staple of Meadows’ trademark.
This is reinforced by the perspective, which skips between Richard plotting his next move in the company of his tag-along brother and the increasingly crazed existence led by his victims, who provide the necessary flashbacks to their treatment of Anthony. These segments, shot in sepia for clarity’s sake, provide a mirror to the plot, as each increasingly cruel act reflects the next growingly psychotic return by the decidedly anti-heroic lead. Rich isn’t merely concerned with getting his sheath bloody, he wants to mentally torture the villains first, make them feel fear before eventually ending them.
It’s this horribly realistic tone that makes said acts all the more horrific, serving to fully justify what violence in film really means. No mere gore fest or torture porn, the deaths are stark due to their suddenness and brutal simplicity. The manner in which this climaxes, with a startlingly mind bending acid trip sequence culminating in a fearful sense of invasion, relies on terror and eye for an eye punishment rather than a roaring rampage, and also, unusually, doesn’t provide the film’s fitting finale or it’s most shocking, soul crushing truth. This is reserved for the third act, a deconstruction of a main character long since shown to be far from an avenging angel, motives as impure as the film’s black and grey morality would suggest.
Dead Man’s Shoes proves to be a triumph in these regards, and due to the work of the two men at its forefront. Meadows, a Director/Writer best known for grimy social drama, handles a more dynamic and boiling point reaching thriller with aplomb, exploiting near-documentary levels of visual eye to give a reality rooted, unglamorous perspective on dark humanity. As he does, Considine (who conceived of the story and co-wrote the script) gives a brilliantly smoldering performance as Richard, an unhinged man failing in battle against his own demons and guilt and losing control even as he gains it over the subjects of his uncorked, meticulous rage.
Kebbell, who would later catch the eye and steal the show in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, extensively researched his role as the autistic younger brother Anthony, and this work despite being cast late, shows with a sympathetic, authentic display a million miles away from award pandering excess. There’s also a surprisingly strong turn from former boxer Gary Stretch as gang leader Sonny, all bluster and bully boy without the genuine savvy to defend himself or his ragtag group of half-friends, who are each excellently played in a low key, believable manner.
Easily Meadows’ best film though not his most famous (that would be the following year’s This Is England), Dead Man’s Shoes works so effectively by taking all the strongly arc-based cornerstones of a classic niche and transporting them into a condensed, unflappably honest setting that heightens the tension and allows the emotional artery to run below the surface, only surfacing at the devastating conclusion as all is laid bare.
Fierce, gritty and unforgiving, just like it’s wonderfully played protagonist, Dead Man’s Shoes may seem a gimmick, but is truly a classic.
– Scott Patterson