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Dead Man's Shoes (2004)
Director: Shane Meadows

review by Paul Higson

Humour and horror are uncommonly successful bedfellows in film, one ultimately cancelling out the other and when it is accomplished it is done so with a different formula each time, be it to separate the sections that make you laugh from those that make you crawl while, at the same time, retaining some balance, or alternatively to lay down a very serious threat and run a ribbon of natural human comedy through it. Shane Meadow's Dead Man's Shoes is closer to the latter approach though the threat, a psychopathic revenge plot, is not the bold original when it comes to storylines while the reality element is at the extreme comic end overlapping into the ridiculous. More so then are the congratulations to Meadows, cast and crew that Dead Man's Shoes succeeds, using something of each of those spoken of tricks, though really not caring to follow any common or logical design. The director has simply pushed for what naturally thrills and entertains him adopting the filmmaking process that suits and hopes the resultant bag appeals to his audience... and that it most certainly does.

With his simpleton brother, Anthony (Toby Kebbell), in tow, Richard (Paddy Considine) returns to his hometown with business carved across his angry brow and a hit list of minor drug dealers and bullies to rip into on arrival. There are wrongs against his brother to right and return upon them, their crimes gradually revealed in flashbacks, and he means first to torment, ridicule and embarrass them as they did Anthony, then finish each of them off violently.

Yes, I am keeping it simple. To enter into the slightest more detail would be to become trapped in a telling at length. There is a lot to delight and excite in Dead Man's Shoes. In his film A Room For Romeo Brass, the director introduced us to Paddy Considine and it is evidence of his great talent that the actor has made the impact that he has in such a short period of time. In Romeo Brass it was played for dodgy character laughs with the more sinister and genuinely chilling side of Considine's character appearing late in the film, that menace quickly dispelled again before the credits. In Dead Man's Shoes, which was co-written by Considine, he is scary from the outset and when he stares it's not with daggers but fucking broadswords. The first violent outburst, verbal only, not only sends the on screen character on the receiving end reeling backwards but makes the cinema audience shrink into their seats too; a three syllable crack, scrape of chair, jut of head and edit that is of brutal perfection.

The almost surreal setting of Dead Man's Shoes is a grubby town, of pure council estate, that appears surrounded by farmland and the greenest of countryside. You start to round the urban village off quite literally in your mind and imagine the greenery running multi-directionally forever, like some inversion on an oasis. When the pathetic criminals drive to the derelict farm to curtail the vengeance they do so crammed into ridiculous little car colour-coordinated green and white with the country and its lanes. The town could be drab but is not, the camera is aware of textures and angles for suitable backdrops, handrails and ramps, gravel-dashed walls, colours and shapes. It is only in the occasional under-furnished room in the semi-detached and flats where it counts on there being some distraction in the foreground. Oh, don't get me wrong, bare rooms are real where people have nothing, either from having money for nothing, money for nothing but drugs or having everything stolen by the drug users (and I was in burglary prevention; I had one client who had been burgled five times and on the last intrusion they stole the bath), it is just that bare walls are too noticeable on digital played large. No great worry of that though as there is always something happening on screen in a Shane Meadows film. Dead Man's Shoes has its mellow sequences and a frenetic other time. Highlights include Richard's disabling of the villains by returning all of the LSD he stole from them... only unbeknownst to them depositing it in the water standing in their electric kettle. When, after a search of the house, they brew up they embark on the trip of their lives, especially poor Soz (Neil Bell) who has decided on a pot noodle as well. You want a British thriller, how fucking British is that! Heck, and digressing now, has anyone ever tried acid in their stand and stir? Frig, but you really want to get to the bottom of your plastic cup before that kicks in. Beige noodles in a beige puddle are bad enough when you're sober.
dead man in Dead Man's Shoes
Violence there is, menace too. The 'mooching' stalker dons a gasmask, which Herbie under the influence mistakes for an elephant. The violent body language and the mask would shit anyone up. Life's Creations, formerly based in Sheffield but, post their work on Jake West's Evil Aliens relocated to London, are the best makeup effects team in the country today and contribute several gruesome 'anatomically realistic' horrors to the film. Sadly, one of those is the smashed face of Soz, only glimpsed in his death scene. Bell explains that the hour and a half makeup job, which included bones poking out of the bridge of his nose, was reduced to a flash because it was realised that the painful bruising would not have appeared until some time after the assault and on someone still alive. I suggest that the bruising could have been digitally removed and Bell is almost fearful of Meadows overhearing: "CGI's a dirty word to Shane." Which is what horror fans ask for time and again... a ditching of those rarely believable digital effects work. The best way to keep it real is to keep it in camera. Bell's mention to me that his next appearance would be in the Christmas special of Shameless brought about another handy comparison for those yet to see Dead Man's Shoes; imagine Straw Dogs as remade with a script by Paul Abbott. If that doesn't get you checking the cinema listings nothing will.

The behind the scenes story explains something of the fascinating and unruly end product structure of the film. Several of the cast members were enlisted at the eleventh hour, Toby Kebbell one such, with half an hour to find his retarded inner self. Inspirational was the last minute employment of Gary Stretch in the role of crook ringleader, Sonny, a terrific screen presence and a range that is unexpected for a sports celebrity. When colleagues die he taps into the tears and expresses shock like a pro. He has movie star qualities and acting ability, which is more than be said for that most sports celebrities gone Hollywood, like that thug almighty wanker, Vinnie Hughes. (Warning, one of the side effects of seeing this film is the development of a death wish.)

Kebbell's acting of the simpleton is quite basic, a fixed smile, eyes set on 'slow search' and the subtlest of uncertain drops of the jaw when fear approaches, but it works. His distress in the flashbacks calls for more from him, so easy to miss it when the camera flails as much as it does for history bits. Neil Bell steals most of his scenes, which is no mean feat as everyone is good here, helped seemingly by his lanky frame being positioned in the middle of others for shots, turning co-stars into bookends. Stuart Wolfendon and Paul Sadot complete Meadows three stooges, and one would hope that he resuscitates them for a prequel of sorts at some point. The filming was ad-hoc with actors competing to make their characters more interesting in order to determine their screen-time survival factor. The character originally to have taken the first hit of the axe as a result had his fate substituted to another actor and he, Wolfendon, survives a lot longer than he would have if script had been important. The film levels off and the laughter goes, but the decision serves to first chill out then a chill up once more in the final dark episode, and again, it works by whatever alchemy has been conjured up to effect it.

I've mentioned digital, because that is how the image comes across though in the Edinburgh Film Festival guide it is listed as 16mm and on the Warp Films site as 35mm. Someone is playing with my head. Producer Mark Herbert informs me that the shaky camera style employed for the flashbacks was deliberate to help separate the then and the now, though as those episodes were shot in grainy black and white, I would have considered that suffice. But as the camera is well behaved most of the time it is no major problem. Opening on 27 screens it is unlikely to show in the UK top ten with October proving to be the strongest month of what has been a mediocre year at the cinema. With interesting horror releases for Halloween, strong non-horrors doing the rounds and 12 new releases each Friday of the month they are up against it with hopes of word of mouth taking it into the top ten, but if a British film deserves an audience this year Dead Man's Shoes is it. At least Trauma has done the right thing and after opening on 150 screens been let vanish in only a fortnight.

The viewing I attended was a special 'Shane-a-thon' organised by the Cornerhouse several days into the film's run with Shane Meadows, Mark Herbert, Toby Kebbell, Stuart Wolfendon, Neil Bell and Jo Hartley (Marie in the film) present among others, arriving in fashionably late attendance. In the foyer was screened Shane's 23-minute short film Northern Soul starring Kebbell and the band Clayhill, the evening rounded off with a live-set from that group, who also provide tender and haunting songs and themes for the soundtrack of Dead Man's Shoes. Also to be found among the diverse musical contributors are Aphex Twin, Laurent Garnier and Arvo Part, though magically none of it clashes in the finished film, all finding their proper place in a largely gentle soundtrack. To clear things up 'Dog Altogether' and 'The Skull' were earlier titles for the Dead Man's Shoes, so don't get excited if you see them on online CVs as other Meadows' 'horror' films.

There is a lot of activity in Sheffield currently, all of it strange and violent, with Penny Woolcock's Principles Of Lust released earlier this year and Susannah Gent's Jelly Dolly currently popping up for preview screenings, but Herbert denies there is any Sheffield Movement or that any such movement should be geared up for exploitation. First of all any movement should occur naturally, responds Herbert, upon which he would willingly and happily fall into it, and secondly his Warp Films is not going to be a resolutely Sheffield filmmaking concern, but merely the operational base. They have projects coming up that include a first feature, long wished for, with Chris Cunningham. Warp Films is an exciting young film company, an offshoot of a music label, with an interest in the creative and the edgy (it also produced Chris Morris' first short film). Dead Man's Shoes is the best British film of the year. Find it on a cinema screen while you can.
Dead Man's Shoes

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