Tuesday, July 12, 2011
by Tommy "Suitcase Stuffer" Pluck
Revenge is a dish best served cold, the Sicilians say. Meaning the longer one waits before meting it out, the more sweet it is. Spilt blood ages into a fine whisky with a smooth burn, preferable to a fresh cup of icy, sanguine gazpacho. This is because revenge is not justice, no matter how we'd like it to be so. It is about staunching wounds that cannot heal. The dead cannot be truly avenged; they are lost to us, and revenge is our heart lashing out to ease its pain. There is a cathartic satisfaction, when we see a wronged man get his revenge, or the doer of a foul deed slapped with his comeuppance. In fiction, it feels especially good. In reality, each act of vengeance deserves another, sometimes spawning blood feuds that last generations, or even centuries, as in the Balkans. The first blow landed is long forgotten.
Most films skirt this and grant us the primal joy of revenge as their main meal. One exception is the excellent Dead Man's Shoes, directed by Shane Meadows (This Is England). The revenge story may owe its roots to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo and Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," but in Britain everything must stand comparison to 1971's seminal Get Carter. Dead Man's Shoes, written by and starring Paddy Considine (In America; also one of the dick cops in Hot Fuzz) plays out like a grainy, arty version of the Michael Caine classic, where a man comes back to town to avenge his wronged brother. Here the brother is Anthony, a mentally retarded young man who was first mocked, then abused by local small-time toughs.
Paddy plays Richard, an ex-soldier who returns home a bit unhinged. When he learns what his brother endured in his absence, we watch his anger build as he first taunts the toughs, then plays scary pranks. He begins breaking into their homes for his pranks, or stalking outside in a gas mask, reminiscent of Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask. Soon the pot is bubbling over, and he unleashes an atavistic fury that disturbed and nauseated most critics. Shane Meadows's genius lies in how he draws us in with these mild hints at genre conventions, and then pulls the rug out from us. First, revenge, then slasher, and finally we come to a bleak realization that changes things just enough to imbue the whole tragic tale with a crushing, tragic sense of guilt.
We see the past abuse of Anthony in grainy, home-movie style flashbacks; this reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, another revenge flick that used flashbacks to great effect. The abuse of a mentally challenged boy is quite hard to take. Toby Kebbell (RocknRolla) does such a great job that I wanted to turn it off. The thugs toy with him, making him think they are friends, when he is really just a plaything. When we finally see the final act and motivation for Richard's revenge, the story uses the immense emotional power it has built with brutal scenes and flips it to show us a big brother's soul-breaking guilt. As in The Limey, the avenger decides that what he really wants and what he thought he wanted are two very different things. The films have two wildly different endings, but the realization is the same. Avengers pay for their act by carrying guilt for the rest of their lives, and the audience-pleasing catharsis that comes with dispatching their enemies isn't enough to soothe the life-long agony that drives them to it in the first place: that they weren't there to prevent the wrongs dealt to their loved ones.
Dead Man's Shoes was dismissed as a slasher flick by the New York Times and many other reviewers, because it never flinches. Justice is not served. The hero does terrible things, and there is no happy ending. This is noir, there are no easy wins, and Richard knows he can never make things right. So he makes things wrong, to ease his own pain.