‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out’ (Francis Bacon). In Shane Meadows’s Dead Man’s Shoes revenge is wildness in concentrated form and the law is nowhere to be seen. A soldier returns to a small town to avenge his brother, a mentally challenged young man tormented by a gang of local thugs. A basic, bare-bones revenge story, then, with the requisite levels of Jacobean shock and gore as the main character grimly goes about his task. As one critic noted, it is High Plains Drifter transposed to Derbyshire.
Meadows -and writer Paddy Considine, who plays the Vindice role - bring some original touches to this age-old narrative. First there is the cutting between what Bacon calls the ‘first wrong’ and the mounting carnage of the revenge, so we do not actually know exactly what the first wrong was until near the end of the film. Then, and more strangely, there is the depiction of the gang itself. Usually the enemy in revenge tales is powerful, cunning and dangerous. But the targets of the revenger’s wrath here are drab and pathetic losers, living out squalid lives and acting like delinquents half their age. They have such a dead-end existence we hardly feel any need to see them confounded. They are no match for the ex-soldier and his (rather unlikely) skills at inserting himself into locked houses. This makes the shocking central scene a queasy affair. It is revenge without conflict. It is quite patent that nothing is being righted, and everyone is falling into damnation together. Unlike in High Plains Drifter no community is being saved. Indeed in this frontier place there is rather weirdly not much sign fo any community at all.
The way Dead Man’s Shoes works against its genre in this way is intriguing. Is the point to make a revenge story which drains revenge of its meaning? The use of black-and-white sequences, the contrasts between dull streets and the lush countryside all add a visual interest. There is a thread of the darkest humour: can a gang look any less frightening than when they are squashed together in a tiny car staring dolefully out of the window at their persecutor? The musical soundtrack suggested an emotional depth which was perhaps spurious given what we actually saw of the characters. Most revenge dramas have a difficulty ending strongly - once everything is cancelled out there is nothing left to do - and I’m not sure the ending here quite works. It tries a bit too hard with plot devices and sudden moral depth. But any quibbles are swept aside by Paddy Considine’s terrifying performance as the vengeful squaddie. His sudden movements and changes of expression are profoundly menacing without being melodramatic. I'll never look at a gas mask the same way again.