Writer(s): Paddy Considine, and Shane Meadows
Starring: Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell, and Stuart Wolfenden
If you have ever wanted to see a slasher film from the perspective of the killer, then Dead Man’s Shoes is the film for you. Yeah, on its surface it might be billed as a revenge picture, and it might have all the earmarks of that genre, but it foregoes the logistics of most of them—there is no careful planning on how best to attack the victims, or how to avoid getting caught by police—because in this world, it’s only the man who wants revenge, and the people he will kill. Not once is his success ever in doubt; but even by eliminating the “will he succeed” portion of the proceedings, which is arguably the most tension-producing component in many similar films, co-writer and director Shane Meadows has nevertheless produced one of the greatest acts of screen vengeance ever committed to film.
There isn’t much plot to speak of, especially at the beginning: Paddy Considine (in an amazing performance) plays Richard, a man who has returned to his hometown after serving in the military. But things went wrong while he was away: it seems local thugs got a hold of his mentally-incapacitated brother, and treated him like a toy. They abused him physically, emotionally, and sexually, forcing him to participate in evil “games” that he has no comprehension of. Well Richard doesn’t take kindly to that, and wants to make sure everyone involved pays with their lives.
Many of the lowlifes still parade around town together, selling drugs and engaging in other criminal behaviors to make ends meet. It is unclear exactly how much time has passed since the abuse, but what is evident is that none of them have grown up, or express remorse for their abuse.
The vengeance starts off innocuous. He sneaks into the house of Sonny (a pitch-perfect Gary Stretch), the “leader” of the pack, and local hangout for all the thugs, and terrorizes them with spraypaint while they are all sleeping off a long night of alcohol. At first, they blame each other, but one of them, a nervous chap named Herbie, who already had a couple of terrifying encounters with the mystery man, suggests that it was probably him. He isn’t sure, but he’s pretty positive that it’s “Anthony’s brother” (Anthony, of course, being the mentally-handicapped kid that they tortured, and played by Toby Kebbell in a performance that doesn’t receive nearly enough credit). From there, it gets worse and worse, as they are picked off one-by-one, in often brutal fashion.
Even though it’s basically a revenge film torn down to its bare roots, the action is adrenaline-pumping, thanks largely in part to flashbacks that gradually reveal just how far the torture went; it’s pretty imperative in a work like this that we feel for the subject of torment, that we desperately want the bad guys to get a little taste of their own medicine, and there’s no doubt Dead Man’s Shoes delivers on that front. But what’s even more surprising, and almost revelatory in a way, is that the film focuses just as much on the thugs being stalked, as they do on Richard and Anthony. So we can see firsthand the effects his aggressive campaign has on the baddies, from nervousness, at first, to outright fear as more and more of them end up dead, and that only adds to our delight.
None of this would have nearly half the impact that it does if it weren’t for the universally brilliant performances. I don’t know much about British actors, but apparently Paddy Considine is considered one of the finest overseas film actors working today, with some even going so far as to call him one of the greatest current actors, period. By that measuring stick, I suppose it’s no surprise that he delivers a perfectly calculated, chilling rendition. But for my money, Toby Kebbell as Anthony just might be the film’s breakthrough performance; there’s a lot that has to be taken into account when playing a role like this, and he hits it out of the park. Everything about it is flawless, from his facial control, on down to his voice…it’s so good that I honestly had to check to make sure he wasn’t actually handicapped in real life. And since his co-starring role here, he has gone on to roles in Hollywood features, which doesn’t surprise me one single bit. Gary Stretch’s Sonny is the best of the bad guys, but the rest are still well above-average.
If you like revenge flicks, you’ll obviously love this. But that’s selling the movie short; if you like horror movies, you’ll probably like this. If you like dramas that mess with your emotions, chances are you will like this; and the list goes on and on. On its surface, it may be a simple tale of revenge, well told, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there is much more than meets the eye.
RECAP: A must for not only fans of revenge films, but for just about any kind of gritty film in general. The performances are uniformly superb, and there’s far more emotional resonance than most movies of its ilk. There’s nary a misstep in its efficient 90 minutes, and it functions as an adrenaline-pumping revenge tale, a slasher film from the perspective of the killer, an interesting character study, etc. Just a fantastic all-around film and quite possibly the best revenge film ever made.