Made in Britain: Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Dead Man’s Shoes, Shane Meadows’ 2004 revenge film is consistently rated as one of the greatest British Films of all time. Admittedly, it’s usually Empire, film magazine for the hard of thinking, dishing out the plaudits, but nevertheless, it comes up every single time. Inexplicably, I somehow missed watching this, but my recent brush with Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur reminded me that I always meant to dig up this earlier effort. So, is it one of the greatest British films of all time?
Contains bullied special needs people and spoilers.
Frankly, no, it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it is very good, but it’s not even the best film I’ve reviewed in this series, and I’d say that Kill List, Tyrannosaur, London to Brighton, and especially Dirty Pretty Things are all better, as is This is England. However, that’s not really a fair comparison, because Dead Man’s Shoes is a film that doesn’t easily fit in a genre, straddling a few, but most importantly it’s a revenge thriller, whereas the others are all far more easily quantifiable. This is the sort of film that we excel at, being gritty, mired in realism, with strong character writing and stuffed full of supremely good performances.
Richard (Paddy Considine) is an extremely angry man. Returning to his home town of Matlock, he’s a bundle of rage and needing, as he eloquently explains with “God will forgive them, I won’t”, to get revenge on the various scumbags that abused his mentally retarded brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell). These scumbags are, unsurprisingly, drug dealers and are led by the borderline psychotic Sonny (Gary Stretch). Anyhow, Richard threatens them, then picks them off one by one before the climactic finale.
This is an extremely good film that narrowly misses out on being a great one, and I think it’s because it feels like the film somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The acting is first rate, with Considine psychotically menacing, from his first encounter with the hoodlums where he snarls at one of them with the control of a slavering pit bull on a tight leash, it’s clear that Richard is a man not to be messed with. In the later stages he also manages some pathos, and the spastic line towards the end of the film is an absolute gem, revealing the guilt and inner torment of the man. Stretch an insane type of unhinged evil. He’s a good looking, tough, nasty bully who has had things his own way for far too long, and Richard represents the first threat to his fiefdom in ages. As such, his Sonny, is genuinely nonplussed on more than one occasion, and Stretch plays this supremely well. Kebbell is good, and award winning, as Anthony, but I’ve got misgivings about this performance, because it feels, for me, far too close to the mockery that you would see in a playground.
The actors, interestingly, semi-improvised a lot of their dialogue and there are several scenes where this pays off in spades. In particular the exchange between Richard and Sonny on the street where Considine spits out that he’s got Richard in the palm of his hand is a model of controlled rage and restrained menace. On other occasions, though, it can feel a bit forced, and the quest for “realism” does on occasion feel like it’s dominating the rest of the film. There’s another problem with the writing in that the twist really is like something that M. Night Shalayman would pull, and I spotted it about thirty seconds in to the film. Not because I’m a genius or anything, but because of genre demands.
This goes equally for the way it’s shot. A significant amount of Dead Man’s Shoes is shown in flashback (which Richard cannot possibly know) and in black and white to clearly distinguish it from current events. However, that’s the only feature to tell the difference, as the entire film is shot on what feels like a hand held. I have, personally, no problems with this approach, and do appreciate that this really is a micro-budgeted film, but it does feel like Meadows is aiming for realism here.
Which is the problem, because the events in the film are not remotely realistic. Richard is a force of nature, yes, but he breaks in and out of the dealers’ homes at will to spray paint them etc. He’s like a ghost, that can always appear exactly where needed at exactly the right time. This is compounded by the worst scene of the film, where Sonny and crew ambush him and Sonny accidentally shoots one of his own henchmen. Does he reload and put a bullet in the almost unmissable Richard? No, he just throws the gun down and drives off. This sounds a bit nitpicky, but if a film nails its colours to the mast of realism as hard as this one does, then I have a hard time suspending disbelief.
The other problem is that it doesn’t know what genre it is. On one hand, it’s clearly a revenge thriller, but the image of Richard in the gas mask is one that seems designed to induce nightmares, so it must be a horror. Yet, we know that the criminals are reprehensible, and so we root for the avenging angel, so it must be a revenge thriller. However, it’s shot in a very typical kitchen sink type way, and there’s long periods of extended dialogue between the characters that aim for naturalism. So on and so forth. This mish-mash of genres is effective for the most part, but there are a couple of glaring incidences, such as what actually happened to Anthony, that don’t come together.
Nevertheless, there’s enough here to show, at the very least, great promise. Meadows and Considine went on to far greater films with Tyrannosaur and This is England, but you can see the contained rage and restrained hatred that colours those two works. As mentioned, there are many individual scenes in this film that are breathtaking, and it is gripping for much of its runtime.
Overall, I do recommend this, because there are moments of absolute genius here. However, I’m not feeling the unqualified love that Dead Man’s Shoes gets elsewhere. I’m going to approve it because there’s a hell of a lot here that’s brilliant, but I can’t help but think that it’s overrated. At the end of the day, this feels like another film that I should like rather more than I actually do.
Next up is going to be a comedy. A genre that we have, frankly, sucked something fierce at for a long time.