“God will forgive them. He’ll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can’t live with that” – Richard (Paddy Considine)
The critically acclaimed 2004 film by Shane Meadows opens with this powerful monologue, spoken by Richard, an ex-soldier returning to his hometown after eight years to seek revenge on a particular gang. His promise doesn’t disappoint as he routinely goes about killing one gang member at a time, ensuring each act is more brutal and harrowing than the last to show the men he means business. The ‘gang’ in question are a group of thugs who tormented Richard’s mentally challenged brother, Anthony (played brilliantly by Toby Kebbell) years before.
Meadows was clearly working with a fairly low-budget but this is needed to evoke the realism of the situation and leaves the audience alone with Considine’s ruthless determination and utter hatred for the petty thugs as we are often watching him plan the next kill, much to his brother Anthony’s child-like distress (“I don’t want to go into town, Richard” / “We’re gonna have to”). The film is split into the present and black and white flashbacks of the gang torturing an oblivious Anthony in dangerous and sexually-abusive scenarios. Most of them are horrifically painful to watch, purely because Anthony is unaware of his actions and all of the flashbacks have us wanting Richard to show the men as little mercy as possible.
Like any British film worth it’s salt, Dead Man’s Shoes has it’s funny moments to lighten the carnage. One involving the running joke of an elephant man when a gang member believes he saw the Elephant Man stood eerily outside their council flat (Considine wearing a gas mask). Another moment of light relief occurs in the early stages of Richard’s revenge when he sends the gang harmless messages in their flat and on their belongings, notably on a Gang member’s expensive jacket which is de-faced with the word ‘Knob’ and a colourful target-practice ring.
Personally, the highlight of the film (and the purpose for Richard’s merciless mission) is Anthony, and more specifically, Toby Kebbell’s sensitive and brilliant portrayal of a mentally challenged young man. Considering Dead Man’s Shoes was Kebbell’s debut role, his performance is mesmerizing and his forced death by hanging makes the film all the more poignant when considering the bloodshed undertaken by Considine’s Richard.
Cleverly, the film’s opening line comes back to haunt Richard in the film’s final scenes as he realises he can no longer live with himself or what he has done. In the final scene of Meadow’s small but faultless film, Considine calls upon the last of his late brother’s tormenters, Mark, to stab him. Unlike the dead gang members, family man Mark was merely an accessory to Anthony’s death with the only crime being that he failed to ‘stop it’ from happening. Mark is overwhelmed with guilt but Considine can’t bring himself to kill him. Instead, Richard asks to be stabbed. Thinking of his wife and kids, Mark reluctantly obeys Richard’s wish. In the last shot, we see Mark staggering out of the crime scene with blood on his hands. He walks slowly across the churchyard utterly stunned by what he has done and the way in which the camera zooms out from the incident almost foretells the continuation of an endless cycle of bloodshed, when the guilt finally consumes Mark with the lives he has and will cost.