Divided into five day-chapters, Dead Man’s Shoes opens with two men walking through rural Derbyshire to the background song “Vessel in Vain” by the English group Smog. Captured by cinematographer Danny Cohen, it sets an idyllic tone but one that is soon interrupted by the man carrying a backpack who says to the camera: “God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can't live with that," and then sets out methodically to prove his point. Richard, an ex-paratrooper, has a grim, determined look that almost belies the humiliating pranks he initially plays on his victims, painting their faces while sleeping and leaving cryptic messages on their walls before he moves on to more relentless punishments.
The first time we see Richard’s fangs is when he is confronted by gang member Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), at a pub who menacingly asks him, “What are you looking at?” only to met by teeth-bearing rage and an unprintable retort. The good-natured, semi-improvised dialogue of the thugs (barely decipherable through thick accents) soon moves to the ugliness of Richard’s bloody campaign to pick them off one by one. While this occurs, Meadows provides black and white flashbacks to show Richard’s justifications for his actions - the increasing abuse being inflicted on Anthony who lacks the resources to stand up for himself.
The film is dotted with memorable moments: the macho crime boss Sonny’s (ex-boxer Gary Stretch) accidental shooting of Big Al (Seamus O’Neill) after the five drive up in their tiny 2CV to the farmhouse where Richard is staying; the face-to-face confrontation between Richard and Sonny while the boys wait in the car; Richard donning a gas mask to lurk about and scare the living daylights out of Herbie; a dark but daringly realistic Speed and LSD trip in which the dealers experience what they have inflicted on others; and a final plot twist that will leave you gaping.
Dead Man’s Shoes is a riveting work whose power lies not only in the staggeringly believable performance of Considine (who-co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Meadows), but in the film’s dirge-like, almost spiritual tone that is enhanced by the elegiac music of Arvo Part. Ultimately, Richard’s belated attempt to redeem his guilt and rescue his own soul suggests that retribution should be left to the universe to sort out and that redemption can only lie in acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
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