Sheffield: Set City – Exploring Shane Meadows’ gritty cult classic ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’
Words: Frazer MacDonald
Released in 2004, Dead Man’s Shoes is one of Shane Meadows’ early films. He would later go on to direct the drama This is England, by far his most well-received film to date, which spawned a successful TV spin-off series that was often filmed in and around the Steel City. But Dead Man’s Shoes is a more humble affair: set largely in the Derbyshire town of Matlock, a short drive from Sheffield centre, the film had a miniscule budget of around £700,000. (For reference, Greenland, the latest mid-budget Gerard Butler vehicle, had a budget of $35 million.) This low production value does very much show in the film, which is primarily set on location, in local flats, social clubs, and farms on the outskirts of the town. Nevertheless, Dead Man’s Shoes is a testament to what can be done with a small budget. There’s no need for high-octane car chases and explosions because what it lacks in pizazz it more than makes up for in good performances and thematic depth.
At its core, Dead Man’s Shoes is a revenge film, but like the hit South Korean film Oldboy, there’s more going on here than grizzly deaths and gore. Both films are more interested in the psychologies of their main characters, though they couldn’t really be more different from one another. Unlike the protagonist of Oldboy, the main character of Dead Man’s Shoes is a war veteran who can go wherever he chooses, and the place he chooses to go just happens to be his old hometown. Although he’s become nothing more than a distant memory to the place, Richard remembers the town and some of its inhabitants very well: it turns out it’s the place where his brother, who has a learning difficulty, was relentlessly abused by a group of drug dealers.
There’s no need for high-octane car chases and explosions because what it lacks in pizazz it more than makes up for in good performances and thematic depth.
It’s apparent at the beginning of the film that Richard has been living with the guilt of allowing his brother to suffer abuse for several years. Why wasn’t he there? Why wasn’t he around to protect him? These are questions that remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure: he’s going to use the skills he used in the army to take revenge on those who did the killing. For most of its runtime, although he speaks, Richard is more akin to the killer in a slasher film: he identifies his enemies, and picks them off in various brutal and remorseless ways, all the while toying with them, angering them and making them look foolish. Similarly, too, to Michael Myers, Richard seems invincible: there is nothing that can faze him, and when someone tries to shoot him mid-way through the film, someone else is caught in the crossfire. All of this makes him seem like a terrifying figure, and for the most part, Dead Man’s Shoes is a deeply cynical film.
All this cynicism lends itself to the film’s narrative drive. Matlock isn’t so much a place of secrets as it is a place where truths go unspoken, and the focus of Dead Man’s Shoes is the men who live in these places and what that inability to feel often results in. Richard’s rivals in the film are small-time gangsters and drug dealers who drive around in a beat-up old car and talk like tough guys, constantly insulting and fighting each-other in a way to stave off the necessity of emotional connection. Anybody who’s lived in a small British town will have met, or been friends with, a person like this; it’s not to say they don’t exist in cities, but that they’re so much more noticeable in small places.
But there’s more to Richard than anger and resentment: somewhere in that mind of his, there’s a deep-seated sense of guilt, and he looks to alleviate that guilt through replicating the crimes his enemies committed. There’s no sanitisation of death in the film; there are no stylish kills nor kinetic action sequences. In Dead Man’s Shoes, murder is ugly, raw and about as realistic as it gets. But despite that, Richard revels in it for the most part: he thinks he is getting what he wants as the list of people to take revenge on gets shorter, but towards the end, he realises there’s actually no respite in his quest for revenge.
What are we supposed to make of this, as an audience? The concluding scene doesn’t feel like an ending, and I suppose it isn’t one, at least not in the traditional sense, but Meadows is less concerned with a sense of closure than he is exploring the issues which face small-town England. The real enemy in Dead Man’s Shoes isn’t Richard, and it isn’t the people who bullied his brother; it’s the unmentioned strain of hostility towards people who don’t fit into a very rigid set of socially accepted boundaries. In a place with so few people, those boundaries become even more prominent, and the result is often concerning.
Ultimately, Dead Man’s Shoes is as much an interrogation of the revenge genre and what it means as it is one that belongs to it. The violence on display in the film feels cruel and difficult to watch. At the film’s climax, there is no resolve for any of the characters: there’s only more loss and grief, and it gives you space to reflect on how inconsequential Richard’s violent spree ended up being. It’s this endorsement of pacifism that separates Dead Man’s Shoes from more generic revenge thrillers.