Is there a full-blown Peckinpah revival coming on? Warner Bros just released a very nice four film set of his greatest Westerns, and Tommy Lee Jones recently directed a fairly explicit homage in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Now Dead Man’s Shoes arrives on US shores (fucking finally), and it’s hard not to see the shadow of Straw Dogs hanging over it.
Which isn’t a bad thing, and Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t a remake or rip off of that classic in any way. In fact there are basic, important differences in the two films – while Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs was a put upon nerd whose wife was raped by a bunch of Limey hooligans, Paddy Considine’s character is an ex-Army man. And he doesn’t have a wife – his retarded brother is the one being abused. There are still Limey hooligans, though.
In many ways Considine’s character is the Frank Castle of the Midlands, and he even dresses up in a costume, which includes a very menacing gas mask, as he dispatches his victims one by one. What’s interesting about the film is the way the narrative is set up – the abuses suffered by the younger brother are slowly revealed over the course of the movie in flashbacks (which, nitpick, are a little unconvincing. The abuse happened years before the events of the film, when Considine was away in the Army. The actors playing the hooligans often do not look convincingly younger, and I found the chronology a little confusing). In most revenge films the crime is explored first, giving the vengeance an air of righteousness; not in Dead Man’s Shoes – we don’t know the full extent of the abuse until Considine goes for the very last hooligan.
On top of that the film spends a lot of time with the hooligans – we see almost all of the revenge killings from their point of view. It creates a gap between us and Considine’s character, where he’s almost like a horror movie slasher, and it makes us feel bad for these guys who are getting killed. It’s sort of an interesting twist on the dynamic in Straw Dogs, where it’s so easy to loathe the unmanly Hoffman for his inaction.
Considine carries the film – although he may get less screentime than the hooligans, his every second is magnetic. Considine is a great actor, even if his first name is a racial slur, and it’s too bad that most Americans only know him from Cinderella Man, if at all. He has the young DeNiro edge, that feeling that he could erupt into violence at any second while maintaining his level of calm. And he’s able to switch that off, as in scenes where he’s reminiscing with his brother about their youth.
Considine and director Shane Meadows wrote the film themselves, and what they have come up with is a very small (there are almost no other characters besides Considine, the brother and the hooligans), very gritty, extraordinarily tight movie that intriguingly examines the morality of vengeance – the final scene is something that I couldn’t imagine happening in a Death Wish or a Dirty Harry movie. And that’s the beauty of a little movie like this – with Dead Man’s Shoes I can get the thrill of a guy in a gasmask taking an axe to a bastard, while also getting interesting characters and moral complications.