Wednesday 10 September 2008

Dead Men's Shoes- A Little Slice of Real England

I've decided to to do a review of this film for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it's riveting viewing. It's a damn good- if brutal and violent- film to watch.

Second, it actually fits in nicely with Monday's post and the topic still being voted on in the sidebar.

But third, because so many of you AREN'T residents of the UK. I appreciate this might make this film hard for you to access. We actually make a lot of films in this country. But the only ones they want to see abroad are the ones which depict fantasy England. The England the Anglosphere wants to believe still exists and the continent likes to think we are. Four Weddings and a Funeral. James Bond.

Dead Men's Shoes is a dark and brutal film set in Matlock, Derbyshire. It's set in real England. Not amongst people who go to fancy weddings. Amongst people who live on council estates.
This film, shows you more about England than Four Weddings does.

SPOILER WARNING: Plot details disclosed.

Since the actors are largely unknowns, I'm going to dispense with the convention of using their names. I'm just going to stick to characters.

The film is directed by Shane Meadows, and you could say has shades of a Guy Ritchie film, except it's not funny and it's way more accurate.

I read an online review before I wrote this post which as far as I could see, totally missed the point for both reviewer and commentors. The thrust of the review was that it was a film with a good guy and loads of bad guys. The commentors seemed to agree, but had less sympathy than the reviewer for the good guy and thought the bad guys weren't portrayed as bad enough.

They missed the point. Because it isn't about a man with a justifiable mission. Not at all.
It's actually about the deeper rot within English life, a rot that seeps out even to the Derbyshire Dales. THAT is the point of the film.

The film starts with a confident, angry looking ex-soldier striding across the Dales into Matlock. He is followed cautiously by his younger brother. His younger brother is simple, or to be more PC, clearly has learning difficulties. We see them looking upwards at a semi-detached house.

Richard is the elder brother. Anthony, is the younger.

First flashback. Flashback to one of the group they have come to reckon with, a fat greasy old man in a vest shouting down and waving at Anthony.

The flashbacks go on throughout. You know from the start something happened. Something happened to Anthony and Richard has come to find those who caused whatever happened. But don't think you'll have a clue what happened, right until the end. And the point is, when you DO discover, you'll ACTUALLY be less judgemental than you thought would be, even though it turns out to be far WORSE than you thought it would be.
A little subtlety it seems, is lost on many viewers.

The set up of what might be described as the 'gang' is actually quite simple, if one reads between the lines. They're not gangsters, they might be loosely described as petty criminals, but even there the lines are somewhat blurred. There are two sets within the circle and we can kind of get a sense of the history of the group from the flashbacks.

Sunny is the ringleader- he seems to have a club of some sort, but whether it is a nightclub or a a snooker club is difficult to piece together. Not perhaps, that we need to. Point is, he is also a drug dealer and probably a handler of stolen goods. Certainly, he has access to firearms.

His inner circle consist of two dubious ex-bouncer types of late middle age who one guesses have probably served time and may, perhaps, have been his mentors in early life. Sunny is clearly the most intelligent of the group, he has intelligence, he has charm, in that underworld, he has it all. He still lives in a council house, but he is a true to life type.

The type of person who if you're looking for drugs or guns or anything in a local pub, the whisper will lead you to Sunny.

And if you mess with him, he'll have you dealt with, but his hands will probably not get dirty.
He has got on in this world because- he's suave. But hard.

The remaining three that we see (there is another one we see in the flashbacks, but that is something that you have to be on the ball to spot and you won't know why till the end), are twenty something youngsters.

Not even really petty criminals. One is certainly unemployed and sells drugs for Sunny. The other two obviously indulge but may well have day jobs. We don't know.

What we do know is that they ended up in this circle because they drifted into it when young.

We can see that from the flashbacks. Which mainly consist of drug taking sessions. And Anthony, Anthony is part of this group in these flashbacks. The butt of their jokes. How wasted can they get him.

A telling- if realistic- flashback is the one where Sunny bullies a weak girl into having sex with Anthony so the others can watch and laugh. The situation itself is- real.
It's plausible. The way people react to it sends a shudder through your spine.


It's the culture that exists under the surface for half of those who drink in my local pub. Because though I live in private rented accommodation, I live nextdoor to a council estate. My local is actually what most of you would see as being quite rough. And certainly a haven where petty criminals meet up.

The flashbacks depict not only a culture I recognise, but incidents in them are things I can see as being quite plausible.

And I guess this is what was missed by the review in question. Because the younger hangers on to the gang aren't bad people, just followers. Lads living in the underclass, on the edges of criminal activity in a small town where ambition is low and jobs are few.

They are weak, rather than wicked.

And as the film progresses, we see Richard terrorising the group. When it starts, we think he just wants to prove a point. Wants to prove he can put the shits in them. But soon, we realise he wants to take his revenge all the way.

Richard is not a hero, any more than the 'villains' are villainous, for all the interpretation superficial viewers put on it. He's a psychopath. Revenge is his sole motivation, but revenge for what?

Because when you know the answer, you THINK you'll understand, think he was justified.

But you're wrong. Because the revenge he seeks isn't founded on the motives you think it is. Inside, it's himself he is punishing as much as the guilty. He is visiting his owns sins as much as their own on them. There is a sense in which his brutal crusade, though it seems to be about them and Anthony, might in fact just be an excuse for him to vent his own self-hatred.

Certainly the ending would back up that viewpoint.

I guess, yes, the superficial attraction about the film is watching the terror unfold, see just how far he is prepared to go, see him tie the 'gang' up in knots, in a web they cannot escape from.

And you want to know why.
Why this is happening.

But actually, it's a strong bit of social commentary.

The whole point is the senselessness of everything in the film. The senselessness of the lives of everyone in the film. Everyone in the film is punished by the senselessness of their lives and their values.

Only one character escapes judgement. And not because he is less guilty.
But because he has escaped the senselessness. Because he has chosen life, not the empty world of purposeless anger that Richard lives, nor the life of callously exploiting others that Sunny lives, nor the aimless, getting by, ducking and diving, sitting around getting stoned life of the younger members of the 'gang'.

It is a shrewd observation of how life in a whole section of our society has gone astray, and if you're stuck within the pull of that world, it's hard to get out. The fact that it IS set in a small, grey little town in Derbyshire hammers that home. This is SMALL TOWN England. Not small town, picture postcard Southern England, but grim up north, hopeless England.

Even more hopeless than the cities, because life for the small town underclass hasn't even got the sophistication and the glitter of the cities. It's amoral, valueless pointlessness.

And this film is about the people it breeds.

Yes, the people in this film do squalid things. They lead squalid lives. None of them have much in the way of moral values.

But we still sense that they're not BAD people. Just people with nothing to live FOR, just exist BY. And that has made their lives what they are.

And maybe Richard's mission has nothing to do with revenge- maybe it's more to do with a recognition that the lives ALL the characters in the film lead, have led and will only ever lead if those lives continue, are all of them, hopeless. And there is no way out.

Every General Election in the UK, the commentators go on about turnout. It's usually between 60 and 70%.

And of course, from time to time concern is raised about the hardcore of non-voters. Those who choose to disenfranchise themselves.

This is a film about them. The people who have no values system, because the one that about two thirds of us buy into a greater or lesser degree, mainly out of a cynical sense that we have no choice, has no relevance to them whatsoever.

But they haven't actually got a fresh values system to replace it with.

This film IS an English film. It could only BE an English film. It's about the England that exists in every town, no matter how small. But they don't want you to see it, and most English people try to ignore and pretend exists in the town nextdoor.

But it's about the rottenness, the emptiness that exists for many in the UK.

It's about life, it's about meaning in life, it's about the emptiness of anger, vengeance and violence, it's about people having emotions they no longer know how to relate to in a society that no longer knows how to feel.

It's about good people turned into weak willed followers and psychopathic monsters.

It is a mirror held up to British culture, for all who want to look into it.
And learn.


Anonymous said...

I rather like Matlock.. the Baths and the Blue John and such like... I had no idea.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't necessarily that these themes are particularly British, although you're probably right in surmising that a film like that would only be made in the UK. I can relate the feeling of hoplessnes to various neighborhoods and towns that I've been to in the US. A friend of mine depicts her Canadian hometown similarly.

As someone who is a screenwriter, I can tell you that it's hard to get by the preaudience with stories like this, because they're always looking for the upbeat, the clear cut protagonist hero and villain. A smaller market such as England can tolerate a greater diversity in theme, consequently. The filming costs probably aren't as great, either.

Anonymous said...

People who have nothing to live's true - there is a sense of destruction and wastefulness in a lot of areas, not just over there.

But dammit! I like the English village of The Vicar of Dibley better!!

Anonymous said...

Have you seen This is England? If you have I would be interested in your thoughts. It sounds similar to the film that you describe.

Anonymous said...

Mutley- Like a lot of places, it has two sides, I guess. I don't know Matlock well.

But I do know Stratford Upon Avon quite well. I lived there once and The Chimney Seep hails from there.

It's actually a horrible place, it truly is, away from the touristy areas, away from the river.

A depressing place in the middle of nowhere, half the town rich as hell, then row upon row of grim council housing and people living lives much as depicted here.

X-dell- The themes are possibly universal, I've noticed that Ireland seems to have a similar underculture too these days.

I always fel that contrary to popular perception, the rural poor have it worse than the urban poor, because their horizons are narrower.

By rural, I mean anyone who spends the entirity of their lives- work (if they have it) and home, in a place that doesn't have department stores.

That's pretty much the way I seprate city based living from rural living.

For example, I would classsify myself as urban, but not most of those who drink in my pub.

This place is eighteen miles from Birmingham City centre. Most of them never go there.

I go there every working day, I do my shopping there, I often go out there at night.

It's a place of the Urban professional and the rural poor...

Kate- There are some people in my local pub who can ALWAYs be found there. They most spend the majority of their waking hours in there. It's their living room, almost.

I think the saddest story I heard was about a child being interviwed for his record breaking rap sheet- about fifty joy-riding arrests by 14.

He hailed from a place called Peterlee which, though I've never been there, must surely be a horrid place.

New Town are generally awful places in the UK.
And County Durham, is as an awful part of the UK.

So a New Town in County Durham, it really must be a hell hole.

Like something the soviets might have built.

Anyway, tghe kid was asked what his hopes for the future were.

His reply?

'No one has a future in Peterlee.'

Aunt Reeny- I've not yet seen it, but I mean to. It's by the same director, which might be why you see similarities.

Further, I think I would relate even more to that, coming from a part of the UK where ethnic tension is starting to be a bit unnerving.

Really, we could do with a film honestly looking at Islamphobia in this country and how it is being manipulated even by the Labour Party to serve political ends.