36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
A bleak, powerful and utterly affecting modern masterpiece.,
This review is from: Dead Man's Shoes [DVD]  (DVD)
Dead Man's Shoes is a typically British take on the territory of films like Straw Dogs, Death Wish and Last House on the Left, with director Shane Meadows and actor Paddy Considine offering up a reflection of callous violence and searing redemption - shot through with a gritty realism and a stark streak of dark comedy - which will eventually give way to one of the most emotionally crippling final acts ever committed to film.
Beginning with a montage of super-8 footage of the two protagonists as children - inter-cut with their older incarnations wandering across a desolate field to the strains of alt-country favourites Smog - the film immediately sets up a dark foreboding that will cast a shadow across the rest of the film. The story is simple, following a discharged soldier who returns to his hometown after an absence of eight years to get revenge on the gang of local thugs who viciously tormented his younger mentally handicapped brother while he was away. Looking at it on paper, the plot could have easily stemmed from the most shallow and manipulative 80's action blockbuster, with Meadow's making allusions to the first Rambo film, as well as Get Carter and the films aforementioned. However, anyone who's seen Meadows' previous films, most notably, Twenty-Four Seven and A Room for Romeo Brass, will be aware of his style of filmmaking... which often involves scripted scenes that are beautifully composed by the cinematographer, juxtaposed with handheld improvisation sequences featuring non-professional actors, or actors with limited experiences.
Unlike Hollywood revenge dramas such as Rambo, Death Wish and various other projects, Meadows and Considine don't paint the characters as good and bad, or black and white, instead, they offer equal shades of both qualities to both the avenging Richard and the local thugs. This means that as well as feeling sympathy for Richard and his brother, we also feel sorry for the thugs, who here come across as amiable losers, not too dissimilar to the kind of characters you could find in a Ken Loach film. The use of dark humour, or naturalistic humour, which is characteristically British (finding humour in even the most absurd situations because you're not sure how to react, etc) work very well in these early scenes in establishing the thugs and also in creating an atmosphere that eases us into the film before Meadows' hits us with the more shocking and abrasive stuff, come the second act.
The script is brilliantly structured, with Meadows and Considine setting a mood with only the vague suggestion of a plot... allowing the story to become clearer as the film progresses through the use of grainy black and white flashbacks. As we become more fond of the thugs, and even begin to question Richard's actions, the effect of the flashbacks and the behaviour depicted within become more and more brutal, we start to see the full picture emerge and only then, towards the third act, can we fully appreciate the true extent of Richard's carnage. This is probably as bleak as cinema gets (easily on par with other devastating works like Dogville, Irreversible, All or Nothing, Straw Dogs, Stroszek, Cries & Whispers, A Short Film About Killing, and so on), with Meadows offering some brutal set-pieces and a really claustrophobic and suffocating atmosphere - particularly in the later scenes - which document real human horror in a manner that is completely unflinching.
Considine's performance as the seemingly damaged Richard is a revelation - easily as great as his portrayal of Rob Gretton in 24 Hour Party People... though completely different - as he manages to convey a sense of danger and menace whilst all the while retaining an element of restraint... which, somehow, makes him all the more disturbing. The other actors are also very strong, particularly Toby Kebbell as the mildly retarded (childlike) Anthony, who, along with former boxer Gary Stretch and unknowns like Paul Sadot, Neil Bell and Stuart Wolfenden (who make up the main bulk of the gang) bring a realism and a naturalism to a film which, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, could have easily become a series of trite clichés. Nothing about Dead Man's Shoes ever feels trite... the brisk 80 minute running time remains riveting throughout (largely down to Considine's towering performance and the bleak but beautiful imagery of Meadows and cinematographer Danny Cohen) whilst the use of music - covering everything from Bonny Prince Billy, to Aphex Twin, ClayHill, M Ward and a variety of others - captures the real spirit of the film perfectly.
Dead Man's Shoes is already one of my all-time favourite films, and is a film that I would argue to be one of the greatest British films ever made. Meadows' proves that powerful and emotionally engaging films can be made on a shoestring budget, whilst also demonstrating quite clearly that there IS life in the British film industry outside the cosy realms of Richard Curtis. Although it may be a little too depressing for some viewers, for me, Dead Man's Shoes remains a shining example of what real filmmaking is all about... and should be of interest to anyone with a serious love of film.