Richard (Paddy Considine) returns from the army to the village where he grew up to find that his mentally handicapped brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) had been abused by a gang of local drug dealers. Richard decides to take the law into his own hands to exact revenge on each member of the gang.
You’ve got your Locks Stocks and your Snatches and other similar films that are constantly held up as shining examples of British filmmaking. However, whilst those films often collect all the plaudits, Shane Meadows’ 2004 thriller Dead Man’s Shoes easily stands shoulder to shoulder its peers and very much deserves to do so.
Whilst the revenge-orientated story of Dead Man’s Shoes is a relatively simple one, its narrative is really quite clever, never really letting you settle on your opinion of any of the characters until the very end. We are shown in flashbacks throughout the film what the gang did to Anthony, each helping to paint a picture of what happened. Some of the flashbacks make Richard’s actions seem somewhat extreme, whilst by the end, we’re left in no doubt as to his motivations for revenge.
But therein lies some interesting questions about morality and retribution. Do these people deserve to die? You’ll probably change your mind several times throughout the film and probably still struggle to come to any kind of conclusion. Pretty much everyone in the film (aside from Anthony) is abhorrent and repulsive in their own way; it’s difficult to know which side of the fence to fall on, which makes the film rather unsettling to watch.
The narrative is supported by a really strong script, co-written by director Shane Meadows, star Paddy Considine and Paul Fraser. It’s not a glossy script; it’s vicious and biting, but it’s absolutely perfect for the story. It’s also rich with dark humour, which is superbly offset against the violence in the film. The hapless drug dealers have some hilarious dialogue, which gives the film some much needed light relief. However, it’s Paddy Considine as Richard who really shines. We never find out what happened to Richard when he was at war, but this is clearly a damaged man, and Considine delivers every line with conviction, spit and bile. One particular altercation with gang leader Sonny, whilst the rest of the gang huddle inside an old Citroën 2CV is impossible to look away from.
Throw into the mix a fantastic soundtrack and some clever editing, particularly during a scene in which Richard drugs the gang, and you have a film where almost every single element comes together perfectly. It might have been nice to know a little more about Richard, but you could argue his clouded past actually makes the character more mysterious. The film clocks in at just under 90 minutes, but its runtime is absolutely spot on for the story. It’s tight and concise; no shot is wasted nor does it feel like it’s lacking in any particular area.
Some may find the whole experience somewhat shallow, but Dead Man’s Shoes is a prime example of how to tell a story on a relatively low budget. It’s violent without being excessively so, and in such a short space of time effectively creates characters that are funny, hateful, frightening, and those that you sympathise with. Film making in its purest form.