Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Dead Man’s Shoes
DEAD MAN’S SHOES
UK 2004 : Shane MEADOWS : 86 mins
Dead Man’s Shoes was only the third film I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. But by the end, I knew I’d be lucky to see a better one. Two weeks later, with forty festival features under my belt it still stood alone as the best, most powerful, the one I’d be quickest to recommend to anyone who asked. To anyone, in fact, who didn’t ask.
Going into the screening, I certainly wasn’t anticipating this kind of reaction. Sure, Meadows has always been hyped as the Great Hope of British Cinema, but A Room For Romeo Brass didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. And two years before seeing Dead Man’s Shoes, almost to the day, I’d sat in a different cinema barely half-a-mile away, enduring his Once Upon A Time In the Midlands, the film which proved that, while capable of comic scenes, comedy just wasn’t his thing. The only reason I hadn’t walked out was because I wanted to see how bad it could possibly get. When the end finally came, the assembled press gave the film a round of applause. I turned around in my seat, incredulous, wondering whether they were taking the piss.
At the end of Dead Man’s Shoes there was silence – the kind of silence that indicates not disapproval but stunned, appreciative numbness. At least, that was my interpretation. Because by this stage I’d already shed more tears than I can ever remember shedding in a cinema. Watching Harold and Maude alone on television late one early-nineties, I’d found my ‘waterworks’ surging uncontrollably in the closing scenes. But never anything this public. For the rest of the day, even thinking about Dead Man’s Shoes was enough to stir my emotions – one week later, I still hadn’t quite gotten over it.
The first hour or so is somewhat uneven, with nothing to indicate the impact of what’s around the corner. The action begins with two brothers returning to their home town of Matlock, Derbyshire: ex-soldier Richard (Paddy Considine), and his younger sibling Antony (Toby Kebbell), who suffers from some kind of learning disability. Via flashbacks, we see that Antony had some time previously fallen in with the rough, criminal crowd circling charismatic local bigwig Sonny (Gary Stretch). Things didn’t turn out too well, and now the volatile Richard wants the gang-members to pay for their various misdeeds. These early scenes feature the kind of working-class humour which Meadows allowed to get so disastrously out of hand in Midlands. But whereas that script was co-written with Paul Fraser, here it’s Considine who shares the writing credit (it’s reportedly based on his own family history) and on this evidence he’s just as good an author as he is an actor.
Which is no small praise: watching Considine’s work in Dead Man’s Shoes you’re reminded of how the British government is often being urged to step in and secure great works of art for the nation, when there’s the possibility of them being sold overseas. Considine came to Hollywood’s attention with In America – but on no account should a talent this singular be allowed to fall into the dreaded clutches of the Studio System. Surpassing even his work in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort, he’s on blinding form here, switching from aching tenderness (his scenes with Antony) to terrifying psychosis (confrontations with the gang-members) and back with remarkable believability.
Seldom off-screen, Considine is the anchor for the film, providing welcome ballast even as the body-count rises in a way which suggests Meadows may be heading for the well-worn, blood-spattered territory of Straw Dogs, Deliverance – or even the kind of “slasher-movie” mentioned in the film’s somewhat lurid UK publicity. But Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t a horror film at all – nor is there anything remotely cheap or exploitative about what Considine and Meadows are doing.
What that is only becomes apparent in the final few scenes, when the film takes a deadly serious turn and suddenly soars into areas which are all too seldom to be found in any field of artistic endeavour. All objections we may have had to what’s gone before – the acting limitations of ex-boxing-champ Stretch; the slightly clunky use of grainy monochrome for the flashbacks; the portentous music; the ‘Western’ overtones; the more incongruous slapstick lapses in the humour – are instantly forgotten. Finally delivering the goods after years of hype, Meadows has made a remarkable film of quite shatteringly visceral emotional impact.
6th September, 2004
(seen 19th August : UGC Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)
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by Neil Young