Great Films You Need To See – Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Although best known for introducing us to the memorable characters from This Is England, Shane Meadows has racked up a hugely impressive filmography – and none more memorable than his 2004 classic Dead Man’s Shoes.

Unlike those other stalwarts of British film Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who go where the story takes them, Meadows has chosen to locate his features almost exclusively within spitting distance of his beloved Nottingham (with the exception of his 2008 film Somers Town); so much so that the Midlands and Meadows have virtually become conjoined twins.

Dead Man's Shoes

Shane Meadows’ powerful revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes

Meadows may stick to where he knows best, but that doesn’t mean he sits back on his laurels as a filmmaker. And instead of playing it safe with the kind of kitchen sink drama that is a staple of the UK’s film output, he often goes looking across the Atlantic for his influences. His debut feature Small Time had Scorsese all over it, while 2002’s Once Upon A Time In The Midlands (his one failure) gave a nod and a wink to Sergio Leone’s love letters to the American West.

The same can certainly be said of Dead Man’s Shoes. However, the influence of America and American cinema hasn’t led to his aping it. Instead, those Midlands settings marry together with Meadows’ idiosyncratic style to create something utterly unique.

Dead Man’s Shoes begins with Smog’s Bill Callahan singing “I can’t be held responsible for the things I’ve seen” – a portentous line for what is to come. Squaddie Richard (Paddy Considine) walks across picturesque countryside to his hometown of Matlock in the Peak

District with his brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) in tow. Home video footage is interspersed of the siblings to underline the bond between them.

The screen fades to black and Richard says: “God will forgive them. He will forgive them and allow them into heaven. I can’t live with that.” The ‘them’ he is referring to are a gang of low-level thugs and drug dealers who abused Anthony, who we discover has learning difficulties, while Richard was in the army.

(Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man's Shoes

Richard (Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard makes his presence known when he faces down one of the abusers, Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), first in a pub and then outside a flat, where he turns up wearing a military gas mask, leads Herbie and his mates on a merry chase and steals the drugs that have been supplied by gang leader Sonny (ex-boxer Gary Stretch).

Sonny confronts Richard, who advises they leave town or suffer the consequences, pointing out that it’s now “beyond words”. When Sonny and co fail to heed Richard’s suggestion they discover just who it is they are dealing with when one of the gang is discovered bludgeoned to death by an axe and the words ‘one down’ written in his blood.

Sonny goes on the offensive and with his lackeys heads to the abandoned farm Richard and Anthony are staying at to shoot him. However, the plan drastically backfires and the terrified gang retreat.

When the remaining members arrive back at Sonny’s house they search the place expecting to find their tormentor there. But Richard is hiding and while they are upstairs he laces their kettle with the drugs he stole. A few hours later and the surviving trio are out of their minds and easy prey for Richard, who kills them one by one in an extremely disturbing scene.

There is one final member left though and Richard travels to a nearby town in search of Mark (Paul Hurtsfield), who has left his bad days behind him and now lives with a wife and children. When the horror-struck Mark learns of who is after him, he unburdens his soul to his wife, telling her of the final act of abuse inflicted on Anthony which led to him killing himself. As it transpires Richard has been alone the whole time.

Paddy Considine in Dead Man's Shoes

Paddy Considine in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard takes Mark hostage and forces him to drive to the spot where Anthony died. However, instead of exacting his final revenge, Richard instead forces Mark to kill him, telling him that all he wants to do is lie with his brother.

The film that comes to mind most when analysing Dead Man’s Shoes is the deeply pessimistic 1973 western High Plains Drifter, wherein the revenge plot is suffused with the supernatural (I choose to believe the character of Anthony is a ghost rather than a figment of Richard’s broken mind).

The story doesn’t quite ring true when you really think about it (where are the police in all of this?) and it soon becomes obvious that none of them is any match for Richard. The camerawork is a little pedestrian at times, also.

However, the plus points of Dead Man’s Shoes far outweigh the negatives. The acting by a largely inexperienced cast is naturalistic, with Kebbell a standout in his feature debut. Portraying someone with learning difficulties can easily come across as broad and forced (Sean Penn in I Am Sam is a notable example), but Kebbell underplays the part, making Anthony a truly tragic figure.

This is Considine’s show, though and he stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Since making his debut in Meadows’ A Room For Romeo Brass in 1999, Considine has become one of this country’s finest actors (and one of its most promising directors following the acclaimed Tyrannosaur).

It’s a powerhouse performance and he is terrifying and sympathetic in equal measure. Considine does a mesmerising job playing a man racked with guilt because he wasn’t there to help his brother and consumed with a rage that is as frightening to him as it is overwhelming. As Sonny points out following their first encounter: “I looked him right in the eye and he ain’t the same guy that left.”

Much like he did in Small Time, Meadows paints the gang as somewhat comical in nature, be it their Three Stooges-esque larking about, or the fact they drive around in a knackered old Citroen 2CV.  However, the stakes facing them are far higher and this tone at times sits a little uncomfortably with the subject matter, especially during the protracted scene where Richard dispatches Sonny and the others in brutal fashion.

The effortlessly cool soundtrack, featuring the likes of Aphex Twin, Richard Hawley and Bonnie “Prince” Billy is pitch-perfect and complements Meadows’ atmospheric cinematography, most notably in the moments Richard is walking through the countryside or on the farm.

Right now Meadows seems content with exploring the lives of the characters from This Is England. However, one hopes he will soon explore new avenues as we need more films like Dead Man’s Shoes made in this country.

Great Films You Need To See – Keane (2004)

Throughout the course of our movie-watching lives most of us probably stumble across at least one film that strikes a particular chord with us but fails to get the attention it deserves.

I have plenty and will be passing comment on them in good time, but the first film I want to champion is the little-known 2004 gem Keane.

Lodge Kerrigan’s superb directorial debut Keane

Back in 1994, Lodge Kerrigan’s directorial debut Clean, Shaven garnered critical plaudits across the board. A masterful treatise on one man’s battle with schizophrenia, it marked Kerrigan out as a genuine talent.

He returned to the subject of mental illness 10 years later with Keane. The film earned as much praise as Clean, Shaven had a decade earlier and, following a successful festival run culminating in a screening at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, it gained a theatrical release. Some movies manage to break out of the festival circuit and make a genuine mark on the world stage; however, Keane was not one of them and soon enough quietly slipped through the cracks, taking Kerrigan’s directorial career with it.

But Keane deserves the dust to be blown off of it and reassessed as a defining film of 21st Century independent cinema.

The film begins with a man showing a picture of a young girl to staff and commuters in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal and asking if they recognise her. The man is William Keane (Damian Lewis) and the girl is his daughter Sophia, who was abducted several months earlier from there.

Clearly desperate and extremely troubled, William wanders the streets muttering to himself and calling out for his daughter. Following a night spent sleeping rough, he returns to the hotel he has been staying at and is told he is behind on the rent. After paying up by cashing a disability cheque, he begins his daily routine once more, wandering around the Port Authority convinced the person who abducted his daughter is there.

When not looking for Sophia, William downs vodka and hoovers up lines of coke – which only seems to fuel his rampant paranoia. Back at the hotel he meets Lynn (Amy Ryan) and her young daughter Kira (Abigail Breslan) and helps out by offering them money. A bond of sorts is formed, and Lynn asks William to look after Kira for a few hours. He agrees, but when they return to the hotel and are told that Lynn won’t be back till the following day, William reassures Kira she is not being abandoned.


William (Damian Lewis) desperately searches for his missing daughter in Keane

The two spend the day together and, for a little while at least, it seems William’s life has meaning once again. But after Lynn returns and announces they are leaving, he takes Kira from school without Lynn’s permission and they go to the Port Authority, allegedly to meet her mother.

Inside the terminal, William sends Kira off to buy sweets and watches intently from a distance, seemingly convinced the man who abducted Sophia will try to do the same with Kira so he can catch him. However, when this inevitably fails to happen, William weeps for the loss of his daughter, perhaps finally realising that he is never going to see her again.

Born out of Kerrigan’s fear (and any parent’s one would imagine) of his own child’s disappearance, Keane may not be the feel-good-hit-of-the-summer, but as a piece of cinema it is thought-provoking, tragic and unremittingly haunting.

We’ve no doubt all encountered a character like William Keane before, and most likely given them as wide a berth as possible. However, there’s no escape here as from the first shot the handheld camera fixates on Keane’s face and barely leaves his side, lending the film a deep sense of  claustrophobia. Indeed, by the final credits you’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve just emerged blinking into the sunlight from a particularly long tunnel.

William (Damian Lewis) tries to hold it together in Keane

William (Damian Lewis) tries to hold it together in Keane

Spending an entire film with a character who is so mentally scarred is a tough ask, so it is to the credit of Lewis’ powerhouse performance that it never once feels like a chore. His breakthrough role after having starred in HBO’s mini-series Band of Brothers, Lewis (currently starring in TV show Homeland) totally inhabits the title role and never once delivers a false note.

Lewis somehow manages to make William neither too sympathetic, nor too off-puttingly crazy, instead delivering a performance of subtle nuances that suck you in.

Critics have questioned whether William’s daughter even exists, rather she is the delusion of a disturbed mind. However, this is to miss the point of the film – to William she is as real as any of us and as such we must ride along this dark, lonely road with him.

In all likelihood, Keane will never be considered a classic – it’s subject matter is too difficult and unconventional for that – but seek it out if you can. Cinema doesn’t come much better than this.