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Geekscape Movie Review: Dead Man’s Burden

Monday 25th June 2012 by Molly Mahan

aka “The Los Angeles Film Festival and What Molly Saw There, Part 1”

This past week, I was lucky enough to spend some time at the Los Angeles Film Festival, presented by Film Independent. As such, I decided to play it smart and prepare for it by watching two or three movies I had carefully selected from the line up, so as to not suffer from film fatigue. Of the films I saw, Dead Man’s Burden, was my first.

I was drawn to watch this particular film, because it was touted as “traditional western”. Yes, I realize not everyone is so easily swayed, but as a lover of American myth and legend, Westerns will always be my all time favorite genre (and since they are, in part, a subgenre of action, I don’t have to sacrifice my love of bullets!). Additionally, given that it is so rare to see a new western, in the classical sense, on the big screen, I knew I had to muscle my way in to get a seat. And I was not disappointed. Written and directed by Jared Moshe, Dead Man’s Burden is a labor of love by a true western aficionado. A tale layered with moral ambiguity in a time where people truly could make themselves out to be who they wanted to be. Dead Man’s Burden delivers the goods and reminds everyone why the Western is such an important part of film history.

Like all tradtional westerns, Dead Man’s Burden takes place some time after the Civil War, where some Southern families have decided to move West to may a new name for themselves, where there is less baggage of losing the war. And like many westerns, the topic of land ownership and acquisition comes into play.: After the sudden death of Joe McCurry, his daughter Martha (Clare Bowen), his only known living progeny, after all his sons died fighting for the South. . The land is desirable, because it contains the largest underground water source in a town ripe for mining copper ore. Her father did not wish to sell the land, but Martha finds the property to be hold too many bad memories and to be too much for her and her husband Heck (David Heck), so she decides to sell it and move to California.

At the funeral for her father, it is a closed casket ceremony, which leads Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehl) to believe that there may have been some foul play–i.e., that the buyers must have killed him. A few weeks after the funeral, a man named Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs) shows up on the scene, with a letter from Joe who he claims is his father.

The reunion between sibilings is bittersweet. Wade was Martha’s favorite brother (whom she claims raised her more than their father ever did) whom she was led to believe had died on his way to fight for the South. In truth, he moved North to fight for the Union, and was thereby banished from ever returning home. “If you come home, I will shoot you myself,” their is quoted to have said to Wade when he left. It is only the mysterious letter from their father that causes him to return, and fight for the land rights which his sister is eager to get rid of for the right price.

The dynamic between the siblings is amazing. They act as foils to each other, rather than opposites, in a way that is in line with the modern western. Both are proud, strong willed, with their own sense of justice and what must be done. Neither is truly good, nor truly bad; their motives and desires are understood by the audience, even if their choices aren’t ones we must (or should) necessarily agree with. A story that allows you to empathize with characters you do not typically identify yourself with is one worthy of note, and Dead Man’s Burden is filled with such characters.

Not to mention, the acting is remarkable as well. I could definitely sense Jacobs’ performance channeling Clint Eastwood’s Blondie/Man With No Name, down to his speech patterns and the timbre of his voice. David Call is likewise exceptional;  showing the range and depth of Heck’s love for Martha that can be completely startling–if not disturbing–at times, and he sells it to the last drop. But the true show stopper is new comer Clare Bowen. Playing a woman of the time with the kind of subdued strength, nearly brimming with an inner-ferocity and pride that audiences don’t get to see too often from women. Not to mention she is a hell of a shot. The supporting actors are likewise enjoyable in their respective roles, with each actor  giving a solid performance, but the dynamic of the main three is what makes or breaks this story. Lucky for us, they give it out in spades.

Finally, I cannot get by with writing this article without mentioning the landscapes and visual tone. Shot on 35mm film rather than digital, the all encompassing, panoramic views and wide shots show the kind of difference celluloid truly makes. Granted, the great outdoors shots caused for a few more lens flares than I would have liked, but they were soft and not garish, working with the aesthetic rather than distracting from it. The film itself is beautiful and enjoyable to look at even without the emotionally heavy content and plot.

This is how light naturally reflects off a lens.

The film premiered Saturday, June 16th, as part of the Official Selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival, nominated in the Narrative category. Please stay posted for more on my trip to LAFF, including more film reviews and an interview with Dead Man’s Burden writer/director Jared Moshe later this week!