Dead Man’s Shoes: Directed by Shane Meadows

“Dead Mans Shoes” is a moral film without an agenda, a revenge film that refuses to take sides. Writer-director Shane Meadows does not limit our access to the heros (if you can call him that) perspective, but explores every character so that the victims fear is every bit as gripping as the avengers moral outrage.

The film experiments with audience identification so that we find ourselves both hating and sympathizing with certain characters at different points in the film, yet still retains emotional authenticity.

God will forgive them. I cant allow that, Richard (Paddy Considine) says in the opening of the film, and even though we dont know who them refers to, we believe him. A man of few words, Richards stone-faced stare-down is enough to make Jeffery Dohmer tremble. When he shows up at a pool hall with revenge on his mind, the gangsters pause in their shady dealings and take notice.

Thats Anthonys brother, one gangster says, prompting a flashback. Anthony (Toby Kebbell), it turns out, is Richards mentally retarded younger brother who was taken in by the gang while Richard was away in the army. Anthony serves as a source of amusement and sadistic pleasure for the gang; their humiliation of him evolving into psychological torture. The gangsters immediately understand why Richard is after them, and so do we.

Anthonys brother is a refrain that gets repeated by various characters throughout the movie, each time followed by a flashback. This frames the flashbacks with a moral conscience, so that the same men who stood by ruthlessly guffawing while Anthony snorts coke are now aware of their actions and the repercussions of these actions.

The bad guys in Meadows world are not mindless drones who roam the streets carrying out evil, but cognizant human beings who experience guilt and fear just as we do. Whats most unsettling is how similar to us they are. Hence, when Richard shows up at the door with the scariest facial contraption since Hannibal Lector, we cannot help but feel scared for the gangsters and hope everything will turn out OK.

Surprisingly, despite being gangsters, they are pathetically unprepared to handle the threat. They huddle by the kitchen door armed with swords, jumping at every sound, but eventually succumb to mind-altering substances and wonder around the house in a dazed stupor. The gangsters’ ineptness at times stretches credibility, breaking with the films realist style, but it also adds much needed humor to what would otherwise be an unbearably grim tone.

At the same time, Meadows suggests that in seeking out revenge, Richard is forcing the gangsters to step out of their hazy universe of weed and porno magazines, experiencing the same terror and humiliation that Anthony suffered at their hands. Meadows bases the setting of Dead Mans Shoes on the small British towns of his own experience, where criminals go unchecked and crimes are forgotten. Richard uses violence not only as a means of justice, but also as a wake-up call, replacing numbness with palpable emotion.

Meadows does not stop there, thoughevery time we think we have our minds wrapped around the movie, he throws us for another loop. As the flashbacks with Anthony reveal increasingly more sadistic behavior on the part of the gangsters, Richards crimes become bloodier, his tactics more ruthless.

In fact, as crude and moronic as the gangsters are, they are still more likeable than Richard, who is hardly a sympathetic lead. This turns out to be one of the movies flaws. As courageous as it is for Meadows to center our sympathies in places we feel they should not be, its hard to make a strong case either for or against Richards revenge quest when we cant tell if this quest has transformed him in any way.

Its a testament to Considines power as an actor that he doesnt remain completely closed off to us. As he hacks his way to justice, we see sorrow, even gentleness in his eyes. He knows exactly what he is doing yet cannot help but keep going until he finishes the score. For further evidence of Considines range, check out Pawel Pawlikowskis 2004 My Summer of Love, where he plays a drunk-turned-born-again-Christian who pathetically tries to conceal his sinful urges. Its a shame that Richard doesnt have more layers for Considine to work with.

That said, Dead Mans Shoes is still a tremendous accomplishment. The violence is arresting but never exploitative: Meadows seems more concerned with the thought processes behind the violence than with the violence itself. Even as the body count rises, each casualty reinforces the depth of Richards hatred and the lengths to which he will go to avenge his brother. By exploring how these characters are all depraved in their own way but somehow still human, Meadows forces us to participate actively in every scene. Rarely do movies demand so much of us, which makes Dead Mans Shoes all the more rewarding.

Written by Kate Findley