Eye-catching stylishness and cool fight scenes have almost become the barometers by which a revenge film is measured in contemporary pop culture, rather than the protagonist’s quest for vengeance. Take Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino’s bloated homage to all things cinematic which he adores, from chambara movies to kung fu flicks to spaghetti Westerns; the aesthetic touches Tarantino applies to plot and narrative are at least as important as, if not more important than, the primary arc in which his wronged heroine seeks out retribution against the enigmatic titular character. If both films can be considered revenge movies– vengeance, after all, is sought and eventually achieved– then they’re only such in terms of structure and action and not in terms of thematic exploration, which I say not as a criticism of Tarantino’s opus but more a strict observation.
Contrast Tarantino’s Kill Bill, then, against Shane Meadows 2004 offering Dead Man’s Shoes, a quiet little film about a paratrooper (Paddy Considine) returned home to his sleepy little county town in England’s East Midlands to settle the score with a gang of small-time thugs responsible for abusing the soldier’s mentally handicapped younger brother (Toby Kebbell). Dead Man’s Shoes doesn’t focus on getting from point A to B in its plot, moving from one action sequence to another in which foes are dismembered in bright red arterial sprays of fake blood; its primary interest lies in dissecting the pursuit of revenge and the impact it has upon the protagonist. That’s not to say the film is without its own excitement and tension– Meadows plays the film with a slow, moody, and deliberate build-up, ultimately treating his picture almost like a slasher movie about halfway through as Considine’s Richard slowly takes apart the collection of ne’er-do-wells one by one.
But as perversely thrilling as Richard’s methodical exaction of vengeance is to watch, that’s not the point. Meadows concerns himself much more with how Richard’s actions affect him, and precisely what compels him to target the gang on his brother’s behalf. At the center of Dead Man’s Shoes lies the pulse of Friedrich Nietzsche; Richard follows a path that threatens to reshape him into someone much worse than the crooked men he hunts down, a theme not foreign to the brand of tragedy which Meadows is dabbling in here, and the film ultimately becomes more a character study of a person for whom revenge is the only freedom left them.
It could have been something else entirely, too, if not for smart choices Meadows made in directing the picture. Richard demonstrates an almost superhuman talent for stalking his prey as he prepares to architect their various demises. The previous slasher comment is written with no intended hyperbole– he’s an unstoppable killing machine capable of being in multiple places at once while his enemies flounder in terror and construct vain defenses to combat him– and that element could easily have lent itself to the sort of popcorn revenge film that’s almost antithetical to the ideologies of vengeance. But for all of Richard’s unearthly prowess and skill, Meadows keeps the film firmly grounded in reality. Primarily, he accomplishes this feat through stylization, or rather through streamlining; Dead Man’s Shoes is stripped down and elegantly simple in its cinematography, with a muted color palette and a judicious application of musical queues that’s subtle rather than grating. There’s little question that the world in which the plot unfold and the people who populate Dead Man’s Shoe‘s cinematic landscape are utterly and undeniably real, even if Richard himself seems to be less so.
The task of making Richard palatable, then, falls firmly into the lap of Paddy Considine, and he succeeds in impressive dramatic fashion. Considine comprises the heart of Dead Man’s Shoes; he drives the film forward and pushes the plot along as he slowly morphs Richard from a man who gets even with his brother’s tormentors by painting their faces while they sleep to a vicious murderer, all the while retaining the guilt that compels him at the start of the picture. Considine doesn’t show his face very often (and even more rarely takes the role of the leading man), but he constantly proves himself to be a wildly talented performer in each film he features in, and none moreso than Dead Man’s Shoes, which to date stands out as his greatest performance. Considine cuts a classically tragic figure, and imbues Richard with a wrenching, raw emotional core in each scene; he’s haunted, and clearly to the point of unhinging and becoming dangerously unbalanced, but the character never becomes completely inhuman, either. Considine keeps Richard honest (perhaps unexpectedly so) about his motivations and makes his spiritual anguish palpable, bringing us to an understanding of his need to seek out the boorish and cruel Sonny (Gary Stretch) even if the level Richard takes his vengeance to becomes appalling.
For Meadows, Dead Man’s Shoes is a personal work; as with many of his pictures (such as A Room For Romeo Brass and Twenty Four Seven), the director draws upon his own life experiences growing up in the Midlands himself and extrapolates upon them to examine the recurring themes of his oeuvre and also present a sharp and harrowing portrayal of the transformational effects of revenge. For all of the brutality the film displays, the sorrow inherent in Richard’s narrative resonates more and becomes the biggest takeaway of the picture. Like the best revenge stories, Dead Man’s Shoes shows the ultimate futility of seeking vengeance, underscoring its inability to assuage a person of their guilt and suffering and how seeking it leads only to further ruin. In a way, the film feels like an anomaly in Meadow’s filmography, and in point of fact it is, but in creating a masterful contemporary interpretation of classic tragedy, the director takes a welcome detour.