Dead Man’s Shoes (Meadows, 2004) is one of the most adept films at conveying raw emotion that I’ve seen.
Meadows’ film is about the futility of violence and revenge, about how it destroys the perpetrator as much as the victim and creates a cycle of misery. I also found a lot in the film about memory and nostalgia and how we take the most mundane and imperfect memories and morph them into heaven or hell, mythologizing our lives as they happen.
Meadows and his DOP Danny Cohen uses symbolic cinematography to portray Richard’s nostalgic memories of his brother. It’s most obvious in the almost monochrome flashbacks, but also more subtly in the glossy colour grading of the scenes set in the present between Richard and the (imaginary) Anthony.
One of my favourite shots was of Sonny and Richard, the first time that they meet. Anthony is framed between the two of them; his spectre looms over them both. Then Sonny steps forward and blocks him out of the shot. Another shot, slightly later in the film is again of Richard and Anthony, this time they’re sat outside the barn that Richard’s sleeping in. They sit back to back, opposing halves of a whole.
In these scenes Anthony seems to represent Richard’s innocence. While the audience is still unsure whether or not Anthony is a figment of Richard’s imagination, they sit in the barn as Richard plans to go into town and Anthony says that he doesn’t want to go; it seems that he doesn’t want to see what he knows that his brother is going to do (and it’s important to note that he’s never there to witness any of his brother’s violent retribution).
Indeed, the barn itself could be seen as a reference to Richard’s mental state, an empty shell that’s lost its original purpose. Similar symbolism can be seen when Sonny answers the door wearing clown makeup. From his first moment on screen we know that he’s someone who masks his true intentions and aggression behind joviality.
The moments of comedy that Meadows throws into the film amidst the tragedy are doubly effective. They lighten the film just enough so that it doesn’t become dragged down by relentless misery, and the serve to exaggerate the horror on screen by juxtaposing it with humour. Almost all of Meadows’ comedic moments are at the expense of Sonny and his gang, serving to humiliate them and highlight how petty and small-time they really are. But in some way the mundane pettiness of the villains makes them even more terrifying. They aren’t mob bosses or criminal overlords, the type of people who the audience can comfortably believe that they’ll never meet. Instead they’re just small-time crooks of the type who lurk in every town. Meadows’ film is a lesson in how effective a seemingly boring and mundane setting can be in creating a terrifyingly realistic story.
Meadows’ recording of the time at the start of each day over which the film takes place interesting. Everything in the film has been chosen and created in a certain way for a reason, so there must be a reason for this. I saw it as a pattern reflecting Richard’s momentum; Day 1 – 06:30, Day 2 – 07:30, Day 3 – 08:00, Day 4 – 07:00, Day 5 – 05:00. These times peak on day 3, when Richard kills Sonny and most of the gang members. Up to the point, on days 1 and 2, his momentum (and anger) is building, but afterwards it seems to dissipate as he realises that he’s been irrevocably changed by his actions and revenge will never make him feel better.
Richard’s motivation seems to be driven by his own guilt for his feelings about his brother, his anger at how his brother’s disability led to Anthony’s abuse and suicide, and how it’s bred his desire for revenge. And in the final sequence, when Richard reminisces about his recent actions, Meadows shoots and styles these flashbacks in a similar way to the flashbacks of Anthony with Sonny and his gang. A reminder perhaps, of how quickly even our most recent memories are airbrushed into nostalgia, whether for good or bad.
Meadows, S. (2004) Dead Man’s Shoes, Warp Films