Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

There seems to be some kind of inbuilt snobbery in the British film industry which equates "England" mainly with "London" and (when the occasion demands) "The North" with "Manchester". Never was this more so in recent times than in the otherwise brilliant 28 Days Later, which saw our main protagonists set off from a deserted London to a burned-out Manchester, with hardly a pause in between to sample the delights of (say) Stoke-On-Trent or Northampton.

And that's one of the reasons why Dead Man's Shoes comes as such a breath of fresh air. Less a horror film and more a disturbingly grim and gritty revenge drama, Dead Man's Shoes earns a place on this site thanks to some nasty violence and a brilliant semi-paranormal twist. But the best thing (from my point of view) is that it is set in a horribly realistic Peak District town (as opposed to the horribly unrealistic Royston Vasey in The League Of Gentlemen) complete with strange Midlands accents and small town mentality. This is real life, where the "gangsters" are basically school bullies who've never grown up, and the only thing to do of an evening is get pissed, take cheap drugs, play pool and watch the telly.

The Peak District, for those who don't know, is a slightly intangible, achingly beautiful patch of land with few discernible boundaries which is slap-bang in the centre of the country. It's a wild place - all rocky crags and blasted moorland, with the occasional stone cottage jutting from the side of a mountain or nestling in the shadows of a valley. It stretches from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent to Sheffield to Derby (ish), but the term "Peak District" also seems to be a catch-all phrase for anywhere in that part of the country which is higher than sea level. It's a place which has a special meaning for me, because I live in Cheshire, right on its doorstep - and whenever I step out of my front door I can see the beginnings of the mountains rising up from the flat Cheshire plain - the flattened peak of Wildboarclough, the wave-shaped cliff of Cloud End, the dark carpet of fir trees covering the hillsides above Macclesfield… It's a truly wonderful, breathtaking place.

But I wouldn't want to live there.

Actually, let me qualify that. I'd love to live there, if I was loaded, could afford one of those gorgeous cottages and didn't have to work for a living. Then it would be wonderful. But if I was a bit hard up, and could only afford a tiny semi in the middle of a run-down council estate with no chance of getting a job and no way of getting out, it might stop looking quite so great. And that's the basic principle behind Dead Man's Shoes.

Richard (Paddy Considine) has returned home to just one of these towns after a brief stint in the army, with revenge on his mind. His simple-minded brother Anthony has been subjected to an escalating series of degradations by his gang of "friends", and Richard wants to sort them out. Richard and Anthony set up camp in an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of the town, and Richard begins to plan what he's going to do to. Dressed like a weird mixture of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Lewis Collins in The Professionals, with a growing-out army haircut and matching beard, Considine looks like a 70s "explorer" Action Man. But his Eagle Eyes have an insane gleam in them, and those realistic gripping hands are going to do more than hold a plastic Sten gun with the barrel snapped off…

He starts his revenge campaign in a low-key way - intimidating a gang member in a pub, then breaking into their homes while they sleep and putting clown make-up on their faces. So far, so hilarious (especially as he's painted "Nob end" on one of their jackets too, as the "victim" demonstrates by turning round - yes, folks, he's still wearing it). Things escalate rapidly, however, with the gang's numbers fast dwindling due to a number of violent executions, Richard using whatever implement is to hand - an axe, a plastic bag, a knife… even, at one point, a kettle (how British).

The story of Anthony's bullying unfolds in flashback as the murders continue, until the final, shocking revelation.

Dead Man's Shoes could just be yet another "trained soldier takes revenge on local yokels" flick, a sort of British Rambo. But (as with much British cinema) it's the quirky extras which lift it head and shoulders above such trash. Director Shane Meadows has gone for an ultra-real feel - the dialogue is muted and often sounds like its being ad-libbed (for example when two characters start comically reading the text from some porn mags), but whenever the action strays from the miserable, rain-soaked town the camera manages to capture the wild beauty of the countryside in some gorgeously framed shots.

The "gang" are a pathetic bunch - a mixture of tracksuit-wearing 30-somethings and craggy old unemployables, astonished that their "fun and games" at the expense of a "spastic" have resulted in such horror. Just how pathetic they are is revealed when they decide to go and hunt out their hunter - the audience, used to a diet of Lock Stock-style hard-up grifters, might be expecting them to grab a couple of pistols and jump into a faded old Beemer. But the only weapon they have to hand is one ancient old rifle, and all they've got to ferry them about is an even older Citroen 2CV, its comic effect increased by a stupid paintjob and space limitations meaning that at least one of them always has their head poking through the canvas sunroof. They can't even shoot properly, as becomes very apparent.

Dead Man's Shoes is brilliant, edgy, funny, nasty stuff, which brings horror into the British high street in a terrifyingly realistic way - in a way, it's the anti-Shaun.

Last updated: February 22, 2010

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