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A British soldier returns to his hometown to exact revenge on the men who abused his mentally disabled brother.
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British film maker Shane Meadows has been creating realistic yet often humorous tales of working class life in modern day England since his first short films in 1996. His versatility is such that he can follow a dark tale of racism and coming of age in 1980s Britain (This Is England, 2007) with a comedic look at immigration and friendship (Somers Town, 2008) and infuse each film with his distinct, refreshing style.
Dead Man’s Shoes followed Meadows’ homage to the Spaghetti Western, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands (2002), to look at a genre that has produced numerous mixed results over the years - the revenge movie. Set in a small town in the British Midlands, its location already differentiates it from the dozens of bad British films that try to ape Guy Ritchie’s gangster flicks. It has always been a hallmark of Meadow’s films that his stories oftentimes deal with the mundane while his characters are rarely successful and rich only in spirit. In Dead Man’s Shoes the antagonists are a gang of local drug dealers, but they’re quite clearly men on the bottom of the ladder, too stupid to ever rise above their current station. In any major city they would be eaten alive; in this small town they are kings, and they prove this time and again by attacking the weakest in the community.
One such poor soul is Anthony (Kebbell), a young man suffering from a learning disability. He is taken under the wing of the gang, led by the unintelligent but violent Sonny (Stretch.) Anthony’s naivety makes him an easy target for Sonny and his friends as they alternate between acts of kindness and aggression. They feed him LSD so they can watch him freak out and have a local prostitute sleep with him before bursting into the room halfway through the act. When their actions come to the attention of Anthony’s older brother Richard, recently discharged from the army and wound up like a tight coil, he sets out to torture the gang both physically and mentally, just as they tortured Anthony.
As Sonny, Gary Stretch plays a man with very little self-awareness, a big fish in a small pond who thinks he’s far more important than he really is. He proves to be an excellent bully, pushing around his gang and the women in his life, as well as Anthony. But when he meets a bigger, tougher kid on the playground, Sonny begins to crack almost immediately. His first meeting with Richard on a damp afternoon stays in the memory for some time after the final credits roll, simply for Richard’s calm and the fear he instils in Sonny.
A real revelation is Toby Kebbell as Anthony, whose portrayal of the mentally disabled young man is so subtle and accurate as to raise the question of whether or not he was truly disabled. It draws parallels to Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredible performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and rightfully so. Kebbell plays Anthony as Richard’s conscience, and when he is hurt, Richard knows only one way to respond.
The film is shot without flash; the camera work is straightforward but filled with energy, many of the scenes benefiting from a hand held style that gives even the quiet moments a sense of urgency. The film is lean, the plot constantly moving towards a shocking and emotional climax, with a final twist in the third act that turns your perceptions on their head. Heroes and villains often switch places as the viewer is asked to consider the moral implications of Richard’s one man war. It’s an accomplished and confident piece of work, the product of a film maker with faith in his ability to tell such a story without resorting to so many of the tired clichés that could ruin such a movie, and with a cast who bring a proper sense of realism to this story of small town revenge.