Not much happens in Shane Meadows' low-key revenge thriller Dead Man's Shoes, but Meadows fills that nothing well, starting with an opening-credits sequence that intercuts grainy home-movie footage with shots of star/co-writer Paddy Considine walking across farmland, set to a spooky, mournful song by the indie-rock band Smog. Dead Man's Shoes is the fifth feature Meadows has set in the English Midlands—that long stretch of UK countryside dotted by abandoned castles and rinky-dink towns—and the way his latest movie begins is pointedly elegiac, as though the director were set to bury his past. And if Meadows isn't, his hero is.
Considine plays a discharged soldier, returning home to get even with the layabouts and low-level drug dealers who first befriended, then tortured, his mentally handicapped brother Toby Kebbell. Considine's plan is initially prankish. He insults his victims in pubs, then sneaks into their flats while they're sleeping and paints their faces. Dead Man's Shoes is fairly light at first too, as Meadows mainly watches the lads swap funny, semi-improvised dialogue. He captures the inertia of hanging out, charting how it moves beyond good-natured piss-takes to real brutality. Once Dead Man's Shoes turns bloody, it becomes tempting to lump it in with the recent spate of violent revenge films—like Oldboy and Hostel—which have been read by some as a belated commentary on 9/11 and the War On Terror. But Meadows' work here has more in common with Gregg Araki's harrowing Mysterious Skin, in that it's about painful memories, small-town misfits, and the way we all reckon with the stupid things we do.
For all Dead Man's Shoes' well-paced, well-observed boondocks melodrama, its premise seems simultaneously slender and overheated. The plot barely twists (outside of one clichéd shocker), and both the inciting crime and Considine's response seem way out of proportion with Meadows' slice-of-life style. All the more credit to Meadows then, for making a stringy pulp premise into something personal and passionate which builds from relaxed comedy into existential dread, before emerging with a plausible stab at spiritual meaning. In the movie's first line of dialogue, Considine mutters in voiceover, "God will forgive them. He'll forgive them and let them into heaven. I can't live with that." And in the last shot, Meadows takes a God's-eye view of the Midlands, left alone with its sins.