Richard (Paddy Considine) is a young man from a small Derbyshire town who leaves to spend eight years in the army. During his time away, his mentally disabled teenage brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) falls under the influence of a gang of small-time drug pushers who treat him increasingly badly. Richard returns to the community to be reunited with his brother and take revenge on these bullies.
The American deep south has always had the monopoly on backwoods horror, but Dead Man's Shoes sees Shane Meadows make a strong case for rural Derbyshire as a hotbed of vengeance and slaughter. From his use of music (the twisted American folk of Will Oldham, Calexico and Smog) to the eerie opening shots of a grizzled Paddy Considine striding across murky farmland, Meadows makes it clear that this time his influences are the likes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance, rather than the kitchen sink dramas that informed previous films Twenty Four Seven and A Room for Romeo Brass.
Nevertheless, Dead Man’s Shoes is a distinctly British film. The gang who tormented Richard’s brother are as big a bunch of buffoons as you’re likely to meet, and although the tone is menacing throughout, the first half is at times extremely funny. These idiotic druggies cruise around town squashed into a tiny Citroen, nodding their heads to pounding hip-hop. Although they traffic in drugs, they are hardly tough guys, and are as likely to relax with a cup of tea and a Pot Noodle than with a line of coke. Slightly tougher is head dealer Sonny (Gary Stretch) – the man responsible for much of Anthony’s abuse – but even he’s reduced to a terrified wreck once Richard’s killing spree begins.
The acting is strong throughout, and the gang members have a hilarious repartee. But this is Paddy Considine’s film – he co-wrote the screenplay with Meadows and conveys an incredible burning intensity. Considine remains softly spoken, even when informing Sonny of what he plans to do to him and his friends; Richard is hardly a likeable character, but like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, you can’t take your eyes off him.
Dead Man’s Shoes is efficient and economic, coming in at just under 90 minutes, but while Meadows isn’t interested in giving his characters any particular depth he does a skilful job of playing with audience sympathies. The gang’s treatment of Anthony is shown gradually in short flashbacks, and at first they just want to get the poor lad stoned and laid – only Sonny is interested in causing him any physical harm. None of which seems to merit the level of gruesome revenge that the gasmask-wearing Richard unleashes upon them; the full extent of what really happened is only revealed during the climax, and it is both shocking and surprising.
The violence – shootings, stabbings, axe attacks – is unpleasant but Meadows never lingers upon it, knowing that the threat of what Richard intends to do is far scarier than any amount of simulated bloodshed. Meadows may not be Ken Loach, but his portrayal of small-town deprivation is compelling, and Dead Man’s Shoes emerges as that rare thing – a bloody exploitation thriller that has both a heart and a conscience.
British writer/director who graduated from two acclaimed short films into his own brand of features, set in ordinary British locations and concentrating on the humour and drama of everyday life: Twenty Four Seven, A Room for Romeo Brass and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. 2004's Dead Man's Shoes was a change of direction, a rural revenge thriller that got some of his best reviews until the autobiographical This is England became regarded as his finest work, which he sequelised starting in 2010 for a television series.