By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
I’ll admit, I had a weird thing for Rene Zellweger in Cold Mountain when I was a teenager. I only mention this because the opening minutes of Dead Man’s Burden also featured a dingy but hot frontierswoman with big ‘ol rifle she knows her way around. I liked that. Okay, now that I’ve gotten all uncomfortably personal ‘n stuff, let’s talk about this movie. Hey, at least I’m not a foot fetishist.
Although, maybe I should consider it
Let’s get back on track here. Dead Man’s Burden is an indie Western about a Civil War veteran who returns home to Texas to find that his sister is the only surviving member of his family, and his father recently kicked the bucket under suspicious circumstances. With a mining company after the water on his family homestead and his sister’s aggressive boyfriend around, there’ s a mystery to unravel, and perhaps some gunplay to be had.
Writer and Director Jared Moshe bites off quite a bit to chew in his debut, and you have to raise a glass to how much he does pull off with his resources. There’s a reason most shoe-string indies are set in coffee shops and convenience stores, but Moshe said, “Screw that, I’m making a Western!” He does a great job with his direction, and finds two talented confederates in DP Robert Hauer and composer H. Scott Salinas to deliver the film’s often beautiful visuals and catchy, Morricone-inspired score.
He also does a great job of casting (for the most part- we’ll get to that). There are really only five principal characters, and four of them do great jobs. Clare Bowen as the sister might have to do the heaviest, most conflicted lifting, and shows enough moxie to hopefully land her some more high profile roles. The standout, though, is Barlow Jacobs as the returning brother, who nails the cool-customer, Man With No Name steely resolve, even if his drawl comes off more Timothy Olyphant than Clint Eastwood (not like that’s a bad thing).
Or even a different thing
The plot itself is the real star, though. It begins with the central murder, which reveals right away who the killers are and puts the viewer in a conflicted position as they watch Jacobs fumble around for the truth. When he finally finds it and is forced to choose between family loyalty and his ingrained sense of justice, we’re just as stuck as he is in making that choice. This film really is a domestic drama cum film noir in the guise of a Western, and once the unpredictable, bloody, and absolutely unflinching finale comes around, you realize just how genius this conceit is.
It’s kind of unfair to complain about a cheap movie looking cheap, especially one that handles its budget this well, but I still have to dock the film for being a little too clean-cut and tidy for a nitty-gritty Western. Instead of worn-in and used, most of the equipment and clothing looks like they’re doing the best they can to return it to the costume rental place in perfect condition, and I’m pretty sure immaculately-groomed short beards were few and far between on the prairie.
Remember what I said about the acting? Well, the one guy I left out was the old, grizzled drunk character, portrayed by Richard Riehle, who plays some scenes so over-the-top it’s like he’s in a different movie.
Simmer down, Wilford Brimley
Dead Man’s Burden is both a sharp, gritty little Western like nobody seems to make anymore and a hell of a promising genre directorial debut for Jared Moshe,kind of like Monsters was for Gareth Edwards. Here’s hoping cast and crew get as much of a career boost out if it as the Monsters folks did.
Take a Drink: every time the Civil War is referred to
Take a Drink: every time somebody gets a belly full of lead
Do a Shot: whenever someone is readin’ or writin’ all fancy-like