Cult Horror Corner: Dead Man’s Shoes
Perhaps the finest British filmmaker of his generation, Shane Meadows has made a name for himself since his extremely low budget debut TwentyFourSeven by creating a diverse range of cheap and personal films that nearly always feature excellent performances, original music choices and a feeling of sincerity and realism not seen since the best works of Loach and Leigh. After two very good but little seen dramas (TwentyFourSeven and A Room For Romeo Brass) and a disappointingly insincere mainstream comedy (Once Upon A Time in The Midlands), Meadows returned in 2004 to both the big screen and his own personal style with Dead Man’s Shoes. A brutal revenge film in which soldier Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his hometown to take down the gangsters who terrorised his disabled brother (Toby Kebbell), Dead Man’s Shoes is one of the most intense and disturbing British films of the 00’s.
In the wrong hands, Dead Man’s Shoes would be a cheap (budget: £700,000), nasty, generic little slasher film, but with Meadows at the helm it becomes so much more. The opening credits, for example, are archive pictures and videos of two children playing set to gentle acoustic melodies. Almost disorientating in how delicately it plays, it’s actually a clue as to the content of the film; raw emotion and drama is at the forefront over blood and gore. It’s telling that two of the deaths take place off-screen and a relatively small amount of blood is spilled; this isn’t a revenge film made to show violence and murder, but to show a disturbingly real vision of lower class Britain, and to highlight the many people put in similar positions who receive no justice of any sort (the film is very loosely inspired by real people in Meadows’ life). Thought most often labelled a horror, Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t quite so black and white. The scenes between Richard and his younger brother Anthony are quietly, understatedly heart-breaking, and without the sometimes brutal violence, this could quite easily make for an intense, BAFTA-nominated drama.
Stylistically, Meadows does wonders with such a minuscule budget. Despite its grim Northern setting of dirty pubs and dingy flats, there’s plenty of gorgeous fields and haunting, desolate towns (it’s heartening to know cinematographer Danny Cohen went on to gain an Academy Award Nomination for The King’s Speech) to look at, which really create a moody, unusual atmosphere. The atmosphere is bolstered, meanwhile, by the eerie ambient score of electro artist Aphex Twin. Subtle and quiet, it’s far more effective than any generic quiet-loud score featured in most horror films. The only stylistic tic that lets the film down is the use of black-and-white in the flashbacks, a horribly unoriginal idea that isn’t all that effective apart from making the film look like the cliché revenge torture fantasy, with over-the-top unrealistic villains, that it could have easily become.
Shane Meadows always manages to get brilliantly realistic performances from unknowns in his film, and the supporting cast of Dead Man’s Shoes are mostly good. The standout, as Richard’s shy, affected, disabled younger brother, is Toby Kebbell, making more out of barely fifteen minutes of screentime than most actors do with a full film. His small facial tics, light voice and sympathetic face all contribute to make Anthony a really fantastic character, and it’s fair to say the film could benefit from using Kebbell’s talent even more.
Of the unlikable gangsters Richard faces off against, the main stand out is Stuart Wolfenden as Herbie, a laughably rubbish criminal who spends the entire film getting menaced, threatened and beaten around by literally everyone around him. The only let down, and it is a shame considering the importance of the character, is Gary Stretch as Sonny, the leader of the gang and supposedly the most menacing. Sure, he’s pretty despicable when he commits despicable acts but he just doesn’t have the right level of menace or power to give us any reason to believe Sonny would have his own criminal gang.
Still, discussions of the supporting cast are mostly irrelevant because this is entirely Paddy Considine’s film. A criminally underrated character actor most known for his roles in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, Considine gives quite simply one of the best performances of all time as the living embodiment of hatred and rage, a man who has become a purpose-driven beast whose only intent is to kill those who have hurt his family. Considine’s first big scene, in which he has to stare, silent and still, at one of the men before delivering the should-be iconic line “You, you cunt!” is genuinely terrifying, and a staggering sign of things to come. Later, he’s confronted by Sonny, and straight up admits all the spooky events have been him and he’s going to kill them all. He doesn’t blink or cower or go over the top like many actors would; he’s calm, understated and whispers most of his line in the scariest way possible.
There’s range and depth though; scenes of him and Anthony together are quiet and pleasant, the calm between the storm, and make Richard sympathetic even when he isn’t particularly likable. Despite winning an Empire award and gaining a BIFA nomination, Considine should have walked away from Dead Man’s Shoes with every award going; he really is that good, and if for no other reason, you should watch Dead Man’s Shoes to see a shamefully underrated acting masterclass.
Dead Man’s Shoes may have its flaws, its clichés, and its occasionally wonky performances, but there’s no denying both its emotional impact and its intense drama and violence. The characters are interesting and even most of the villains are fairly average, normal people caught in the middle of hell. If Dead Man’s Shoes can be classed as a horror film, and it is a subject worthy of debate, then it is perhaps the finest British horror of the 00’s. If it isn’t quite Shane Meadows’ masterpiece (2007’s This Is England holds that crown), it’s certainly his darkest and most interesting film, whilst it is no exaggeration to state that Paddy Considine gives an all-time classic performance which is worthy of your full attention.
By Harry J. Ford
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