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March 21, 2005

Dead Man's Shoes

2004.Britain.Meadows

3.0 / 4.0

Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his quaint, English hometown after spending some time in the armed forces to take revenge on the local gang, lead by the fearsome Sonny (Gary Stretch), that tormented his brother (Toby Kebbell), in Shane Meadows’ bloody, British revenge fable.

And Dead Man’s Shoes is all about the ensuing mood. The characters, though well acted and distinguishable, aren’t terribly memorable and the plot is insufficient even for the film’s running time of less than ninety minutes. Judging by the surface, the film really shouldn’t be much better than the recent remake of Walking Tall starring The Rock. But it is.

Many critics single out Considine’s performance as the reason for this, but I disagree. For one, ex-boxer Stretch is more effective as a sleazy, tough villain than Considine as the reserved, quietly murderous Richard. And there isn’t enough credit given to Meadows, who sustains an almost unbearable tension through the film’s final hour.

However, the central reason that Dead Man’s Shoes not only works, but works well and packs the emotional wallop that it does is due to the script, co-written by Meadows and Considine, which wraps a predictable tale of revenge with layers of Christian symbolism and themes.

At one point, Richard drugs several of the gang members he set out to punish, and is toying with them when one looks him in the eyes and asks, “Jesus?” Richard shakes his head, but the question is meant to force the viewer to engage with the film’s religious aspect.

Dead Man’s Shoes is no less about Christ than Mel Gibson’s The Passion. It opens with Richard’s sombre statement of intent, “God will forgive them for what they have done, and he will allow them into heaven. I can't live with that,” and ends with a God-like point of view shot from the clouds accompanied by the sounds of a Church choir.

In Dead Man’s Shoes, Richard takes on the role of a vengeful God while his mentally challenged brother Anthony assumes the role of Christ.

The most striking connection between Anthony and Christ is made in a late scene in which Sonny’s gang mercilessly tortures Anthony near an abandoned farmhouse. Bringing to mind the suffering of Christ, the scene emphasises the belief that Christ chose, and was not forced, to die for the sins of humanity. There is even a Pontius Pilate figure, who has the power to stop the ordeal but does not.

Another similarity becomes apparent with a key revelation in the film. Although Anthony exhibits an appealing type of simplicity and grace from the beginning, Meadows grants him actual transcendence by the story’s conclusion. The many shots of Richard and Anthony walking through field and forest achieve a level spirituality.

As God, Richard is always distant from other characters in the film. He appears mainly to pass judgement on them, and the way in which he surprises and frightens his victims, those responsible for the “death of his son”, borders on the supernatural. He appears and disappears almost at will, and has an aura of invincibility. He doesn’t even flinch at the possibility of being shot. Juxtaposed with the exaggerated panic and fallibility of the gang members, Richard is cold and inhuman, but never entirely frightening. What Meadows stresses is Richard’s otherness.

The conclusion of Dead Man’s Shoes is interesting because it offers two endings. Without getting into details that would ruin the film, it is sufficient to say that one is entirely pessimistic and embroils us all in a terrible crime. The second, however, is quite the opposite. It offers comfort and redemption.

Dead Man’s Shoes is much more than its synopsis.

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