Friday 15 September 2023

Out of the past: "Dead Man's Shoes"

Shane Meadows started out making knockabout comedies, before something in the knockabout triggered recollections of real-life trauma. The violence was formalised in the boxing of 1997's
TwentyFourSeven; it erupted halfway through 1999's A Room for Romeo Brass, a sweet coming-of-age narrative rerouted by the arrival of bigger kid Paddy Considine, making one of the great screen debuts in British film history. By the time of 2006's This is England and its televised spin-offs, trauma (more specifically, the traumas of hooliganism and domestic abuse) had become the central theme of this filmography; the vision suddenly expanded from the regional to the national, so as to show how a decade or more of Thatcherite neglect had left an entire country hurting. First released in 2004, Dead Man's Shoes is a film that lurks between worlds: it finds the living co-existing with the dead, and is funny and scary in equal measure. On some level, this was Meadows and co-writer Considine's riposte to those mostly worthless, ducking-and-diving Brit crime flicks that proliferated at the turn of the millennium, setting Considine's Army-trained Richard out to avenge the death of his vulnerable younger brother (Toby Kebbell); former boxer Gary Stretch, a mainstay of the straight-to-video form, plays the ultimate Big Bad, heading a supporting cast of whey-faced ne'er-do-wells in hooky leisurewear. But it's also a film made by someone who knew full well what it meant to throw or take a punch - and who was possessed of the filmmaking smarts to make the pain in this story stick. The results now look like the closing pages in an early chapter of this director's career, but they're still haunting, the images lingering in ways those arrived at by the average Guy Ritchie wannabe haven't. Larkish as this film is in places, it grasps that real-life violence can't be entirely laughed off; that it stays with you, and sometimes follows you around.

That this is Early Meadows can be grasped from its roughness of form: heavily improvised scenes, full of likely lads encouraged to spout bollocks by the yard. (I was reminded of the alarmed response to Meadows' recent BBC series The Gallows Pole, which set itself up in prime time as Downton-adjacent period drama, only to prove recognisably Meadowsian in performance and framing.) The brutality in the plot is countered, but never entirely seen off, by a streak of cartoonish comedy. After Richard breaks into his quarries' crashpad, one geezer is seen to grab a frying pan as a makeshift defensive weapon; another wakes up to find his pursuer has spraypainted the word "NOB" on the back of his Sunday best. The manner in which Richard toys with his targets is funny, too, but only up to a point. (That point may be a single line of dialogue: "He still is.") Visually, it's miles ahead of most of the tuppenny-ha'penny tinpot crime movies that emerged around this period, elevated by Meadows' Martin Parr-like eye for the everyday: lock-up garages, rusting swing sets, terraced houses in a state of disrepair matching that of the characters. While ace cinematographer Danny Cohen captures stray rays of sunshine piercing the East Midlands grey, the tone is generally despairing: the hope Meadows and Paul Fraser invested in the relationship between the young playmates in Romeo Brass is all but extinguished here. The film is at its least healthy in its insistence death is the only way these characters can find peace; yet its use of flashbacks intrigues, allowing even the must lumpen of these thugs room to demonstrate belated remorse, rethink their actions. Evidently, this was an attempt to articulate something in the filmmakers' own past - if not what had specifically happened to Meadows and Considine, then to people they knew, the kind of dingy bedsit atrocities you hear about in darkened corners of lifeless pubs in forgotten towns. The This is England project, made with the advantage of a few extra years' experience, would be the fullest and most eloquent expression of this hurt. Dead Man's Shoes is rawer, a kick up the arse of a movie. But you feel it, nevertheless.

Dead Man's Shoes returns to selected cinemas from today.

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