The revenge picture may owe its roots to The Count of Monte Cristo, but in Britain everything will be compared to 1971’s excellent Get Carter. Dead Man’s Shoes, written by and starring Paddy Considine (In America; one of the dick cops in Hot Fuzz) plays out like a grainy, arty version of that movie, where a man comes back to town to avenge his wronged brother. Here the brother is Anthony, a mentally retarded young man who was first mocked and then abused by the local small-time toughs.
Paddy plays an Richard, ex-soldier who returns home a bit unhinged, and we watch his anger build as he first taunts them, then plays scary pranks; soon the pot is bubbling over, and it almost becomes a slasher picture. He begins breaking into their homes for his pranks, or stalking outside in a gas mask, reminiscent of Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask. The movie’s genius lies in how it draws us in with these mild hints at genre conventions, and then pulls the rug out from us. First, revenge; then slasher, and finally we come to a bleak realization that changes things just enough to imbue the whole tragic tale with crushing guilt.
We see the past abuse of Anthony in grainy, home-movie style flashbacks; this reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s excellent film The Limey, where the flashbacks were of Terence Stamp in an early role, in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. Some of the abuse is quite hard to take; at first they toy with him, making him think they are friends, when he is really just a plaything. When we finally see the real motivation for his brother’s revenge spree, the movie rises above genre. Like The Limey, both involve avengers who eventually decide what they really want, and what they thought they wanted, are two different things. The films have two wildly different endings, but the realization is what matters. Avengers have a lot of guilt to live with, and the audience-pleasing catharsis that comes with dispatching their enemies isn’t enough to soothe the life-long agony that drives them to do it.
Dead Man’s Shoes was dismissed as a slasher flick by the New York Times, and many other reviewers. Personally I found it much better than another recent, lauded revenge flick- Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, with Jodie Foster. I like Jodie Foster quite a bit, and Neil Jordan, but despite the film’s attempt at an intellectual look at vengeance in civilized society, it is entirely wish fulfillment, fantasy, and liberal feel-good fantasy at that. The movie has a bit of split-personality, which I can relate to; I consider myself politically liberal in social matters, but I am also a Lifetime Member of the NRA. The movie should be tailored for me to enjoy, but it just didn’t ring true.
The Brave One rides on performances; with Ms. Foster in the Bronson Death Wish role, we can recall how good the first movie of that nose-diving series was. Bronson’s character vomits the first time he dispatches a mugger, shivering as he aims the pistol at him, only empowered much later, after the sickness passes. Jodie’s tale felt more like it was about the lure of the firearm’s power; at the gun shop she seems like a fat kid in a pastry shop. In Death Wish, Bronson’s wife is murdered but he never finds the killers; instead he metes out random justice and strikes fear into criminals who never know if a watching bystander might pull out a nickel-plated revolver and kill them.
In The Brave One, we are given a sculpted hate crime as the impetus that drives Foster’s revenge spree. She and her fiancé (Naveen Andrews, Sayid from “Lost”) are attacked by three tattooed thugs in Central Park, in a chilling and masterful filmed sequence. The helplessness and horror of an attack on your loved one is shoved in your face, and this feels quite real. Foster plays a radio celebrity, which gives her a unique forum to talk about crime in the city, justice, and vigilantism. To me, it felt like a story written for the NPR crowd. I felt like I was being pandered to; I already believe that if tested, trained citizens were allowed to carry firearms (like in a dozen other states) we would see a reduction in predatory crimes, so it felt too neat to me. How can you deny someone gun rights, when we’re shown that even an enlightened liberal talk show host could avenge a hate crime by neo-Nazi trash if only given the chance?
People who are strangers to guns imbue them with a quality not unlike the One Ring from Tolkien. They seduce you, they lure you, their power leads you to do things civilized people just don’t do. Personally I the seduction is in the eye of the beholder; forbidden fruit is always seductive. I was raised with guns in the house, and was taught to respect, not fear them. Rather like a chainsaw, or other tool you wouldn’t play with unless you have limbs to spare. The film portrays Foster’s seduction deftly, but then goes awry by making her vengeance all too easy, both physically and morally. It gives her no guilt, no hard choices to make; leaving it a compelling thriller, but not much else. I found it fun, but empty. We want her to succeed, but she pays nothing for it. Vengeance almost always comes at a price.
In Dead Man’s Shoes, Richard is paying for it from frame one. He is filled with deep regret for not protecting his brother, for being ashamed of him in childhood, and perhaps he joined the Army to get away from that shame. Is he punishing the thugs, or flagellating himself? His vengeful strikes aren’t as clean and easy as sneaking up and shooting his foes, either. The first involves a hammer. His deep rage would not be sated by a distant shooting. It escalates into unthinkable madness before he is through, and the foes are not mere cookie-cutter targets painted as easy-to-hate stereotypes. Sure they are dumb backwater thugs, drug users and dealers, but we spend more time with them than the supposed hero; we feel their terror, and their own regrets over games gone too far. This movie speaks volumes about the true roots of vengeance, its costs, and its brutality. It does not take the easy route like The Brave One.
The one difficulty with the film is the DVD release, which lacks English subtitles. The strong accents are hard to decipher sometimes, and I had no problem with Trainspotting. It is definitely worth your time and a rental; Paddy Considine’s intensity is hard to match. If you liked The Brave One, you might want to revisit its forebear, Death Wish. Charles Bronson’s Paul Benjamin may not be as nuanced as Jodie Foster, and he may have turned into an action-hero cartoon, but he also doesn’t get retribution served to him on a sparkling clean moral platter.