I liked (sort of) Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), the previous film by the British director Shane Meadows. It was an affectionate and ironic updating and transplantation of the classic Western with its paradigmatic test of manhood. It fell just short of patronizing its rather simple-minded subjects because it took their human predicament seriously. But Mr. Meadows’s new movie, Dead Man’s Shoes, falls on the other side of that line, so losing both the light touch he has shown he is capable of and the sense of continuity with his classic model. In seeking to re-imagine the revenge tragedy for the therapeutic age, he negates it rather than updates it and only succeeds in saying what other recent films, including David Cronenberg’s History of Violence and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, have already said better.
The picture begins promisingly with Richard (Paddy Considine) waking up in a barn or shed as we hear him say in voiceover, “God will forgive them, forgive them and let them into heaven; I can’t live with that.” So explicit a renunciation of Christian forgiveness ought to lead to something more interesting than it does here. For Richard turns out to be rather a two-dimensional character. Either he’s the bloodthirsty revenge-seeker we see here or — he’s not. But the pivot between the two Richards is too facile and trivial, it seems to me, to account for such a large difference, and his final way out of the contradiction between them just doesn’t strike me as being at all believable.
We learn that Richard is a member of Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment who has returned to his Yorkshire home to take revenge against a gang of low-lifes and drug dealers who have done something terrible to his mentally retarded brother, Anthony (Toby Kebbell). Anthony for the moment seems unscarred by it, whatever it is, as he chats happily away with his adored big brother, and it only gradually emerges, in black-and-white flashbacks, what it is that Richard has against the bad guys — who really are bad. They are led by the scary Sonny (Gary Stretch), but somehow Richard isn’t afraid of him, warning Sonny that he’s coming after him “unless you get to me first.” This completely unnerves both Sonny and his would-be tough guy followers, and they decide that, indeed, they had better get to him first — until fate takes a hand. What follows is not for the weak of stomach.
About whether and how as well as why Richard wreaks his vengeance upon them I can say nothing more without giving too much away, but for as much or as little of such vengeance as there is, you may find yourself, as I did, disappointed in the denouement to find Richard confronting another one of the gang, Mark (Paul Hurstfield), and saying: “You, you were supposed to be a monster — now I’m the f****** beast. There’s blood on my hands, from what you made me do.” Do you see where he’s going with this? Yeah, I thought so. Richard’s real misfortune, not too surprisingly, is that he can’t operate on the higher moral plane occupied by S. Meadows and D. Cronenberg and S. Spielberg and others of the movie-making elite who, for some reason, have lately taken to preaching instead of more traditional sorts of movie-making. It’s maybe too late for poor Richard to join the great and the good on the other side of the moral divide between the beastly and the beatific, but it’s not for us, as I’m sure you’ll be glad to know.
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