"Dead Man's Shoes" opens with Richard (Paddy Considine) reflecting on the torture his brother endured at the hands of a group of bullies in their hometown of Matlock in England. "God will forgive them for what they have done, and he will allow them into heaven. I can't live with that."
In "Dead Man's Shoes," Considine ("In America") plays Richard, a disaffected soldier who returns home to the small village of Matlock in England after several years in the military. Richard is bent on payback to this group of local bullies who tormented his brother, Anthony (Toby Kebbell) while he was gone.
Richard, who has become fearless after years in the military, uses guerilla tactics to first frighten them, then he begins his own increasingly violent forms of torment against each person responsible for the acts against his brother.
"Dead Man's Shoes" is being inappropriately marketed in the U.S., with most advertising having it appear as if the film is a British slasher flick. The film does become increasingly violent, however, the film's overall tone is closer to "Straw Dogs" than any type of slasher flick. The script, by Considine and director Shane Meadows, is balanced in moving between flashbacks of the young brothers, flashbacks of Anthony's torment by the bullies, and Richard's current attacks on the bullies.
In the role of Richard, Paddy Considine gives a subdued, incredibly restrained performance. Considine communicates more vividly with a piercing look than many actors do with the spoken word. Considine's performance is marvelous, and the fact that he co-authored this script is a strong indicator that Considine is as gifted a writer as he is an actor.
As Anthony, newcomer Toby Kebbell gives a dignified performance that includes all the stereotypical tics and smirks, however, the performance constantly feels real.
The collection of ragtag bullies is interesting, and they cross nearly every lifestyle choice. We have the town's local crime leader, a gay couple, a young woman, two elderly man and one man who seems too paralyzed to do anything. He never fully participates, but he seems unable to make any gesture toward stopping the acts.
As the violence progresses, the audience is left increasingly to make its own judgment calls. The torment that Anthony endures is revealed in flashbacks that are simply too grainy to be fully compelling. They still have a remarkable impact and do, finally, begin to explain the gravity of Richard's actions. However, up to this point it becomes difficult to truly justify the drastic steps that Richard is taking in the name of revenge. By the time the film ends, it is Richard who has become the tormentor and this leads to a final altercation that is ambiguously filmed and radiates both hopefulness and despair.
The film's production quality is remarkably fresh, and includes extremely atypical music for this type film. The music used in "Dead Man's Shoes" could almost be described as Irish folk music...it is quiet, peaceful and reflective. It takes a very similar tone to the one Richard carries as the film progresses.
The direction by Shane Meadows is well-paced, balanced and highly suspenseful. Characters are developed with such balance and clarity that there are times when it becomes unclear exactly who should be rooted for, especially in the film's latter half.
The cinematography is strong, with significant use of faded colors and varying shades of black and white. One scene, in particular, shows the mastery of Meadows as a director. There is a scene of being "under the influence." While in most director's hands such a scene would be laughable and filled with stereotypes, in the hands of Shane Meadows, the film becomes an authentic and gripping tale of life in a small England town.