Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Dead Man’s Shoes (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 8, 2006

Directed by Shane Meadows/screenplay by Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows/starring Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell/Magnolia Home Entertainment

A man returns home from the Army and takes revenge on the local gangsters who mistreated his mentally challenged brother.

Some films sneak up on you, winning you over gradually after a slow start with some genuine surprises. Others grab you by the throat right away and refuse to let go until the end credits roll. Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those rare movies that somehow does both. It seems contradictory, I know. But this Irish import from 2004 (just released here this past May, and out on DVD less than four months later) from acclaimed director Meadows (twentyfourseven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) manages to be a complete rollercoaster ride of fear and brutality for most of its running time, then completely turns itself upside down in its final reel to become something much different than expected. By the end, you realize that what you’ve been watching is not exactly what you thought you were watching, and the results of this are devastating.

Some folks like to call this a “twist ending”, but that’s far too simplistic to describe the effect here. At a time when that phrase is as overused as the device it describes is overdone, Meadows demonstrates how to selectively dole out information throughout the narrative to great effect. What we initially perceive as a simple badass revenge tale (like an Irish Death Wish) becomes something far more emotional and provocative.

The story centers on Richard (Considine), a man who’s just returned from serving seven years in the Irish Army. His first order of business, naturally, is revenge. His targets are local drug pusher Sonny (Stretch) and his gang of miscreants. It seems that when Richard went away, his mentally challenged brother Anthony (Kebbell) was taken in by Sonny and company, who proceeded to physically and verbally abuse him.

Richard’s reaction is to hunt down each member of Sonny’s crew and brutally murder them one by one. At first, this seems like a bit of an overreaction, until we get all of the sordid details of poor Anthony’s torment. Richard obviously learned some helpful murder skills while he was away, but simple ritual killing isn’t his entire game plan. Instead, his main purpose is to instill such fear and intimidation in the gang that they completely freak out, panic and eventually turn on each other. His tactics include putting on a gas mask (shades of My Bloody Valentine) and a green jumpsuit, an outfit so inherently creepy that it will easily become the film’s most iconic image.

It’s not as if the boys don’t deserve it; bullying someone who can’t fight back is always low, and picking on those who suffer from mental retardation is the lowest. The flashbacks which reveal the extent of what Anthony went through are harrowing, and Sonny in particular comes off like a truly vile scumbag. Yet Richard’s revenge is so chilling, so harsh, that you can’t help but feel sorry for them in a bizarre way. The more scared shitless they become, the more their basic humanity is revealed to us in unexpected ways. We don’t exactly root for them to survive – it’s not like anyone will miss a group of unrepentant lowlife criminals – but we still feel a little sympathy for their situation nonetheless.

For his part, it’s Richard who often comes off like a monster – cold, cruel and calculating in his relentless bloodthirsty quest, even if we understand and sympathize with his motivations. Considine (In America, Cinderella Man) is absolutely fierce here in a stunning portrayal of a man so completely consumed by rage that he’s closer to a mad, barking dog than a human being. But we see his humanity in his scenes with Anthony, who’s the only person left that he can let down his guard with. It’s in the film’s gut-wrenching ending that Richard seems to come full circle, as he realizes that his inhumane acts have corroded what was left of his soul, and he does the only thing he possibly can to regain it. It’s an incredible performance, one that should cement Considine’s reputation as one of the best actors working today.

It’s to his credit (as lead actor and co-writer of the piece) and Meadows’ that the film is such a powerhouse, a startling meditation on the nature of revenge and what violence does to us psychologically. It’s a variation on an age-old theme, of course, but it’s rivaled only in recent years by Park Chan-Wook’s “Revenge Trilogy”. This is brutal, gritty stuff, and perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Magnolia’s DVD includes a commentary with Meadows, Considine and producer Mark Herbert, as well as one single deleted scene and an alternate ending (not very different from the one in the film, but not as good). The most informative extra is a featurette called “In Shane’s Shoes”, in which Meadows discusses how his own childhood experiences with older criminals inspired him to make the film. It’s fascinatingly honest, and one hopes that the talented Meadows (who has already made two films after Shoes and is in pre-production on a third) won’t have such a difficult time getting his films released over here from now on.

**** 9/8/06

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