Made for not much more than a fistful of dollars, Jared Moshe's old school western DEAD MAN'S BURDEN boasts a female gun toter with true grit and stunning desert vistas but is too busy trotting out archetypes to find an identity of its own says Catherine Stebbins.
Sprocket Holes is an irregular column focused on small release films either playing limited engagements in major cities or available on VOD. As well as appreciating indies on the fringes of the festival circuit, it also takes a second look at under the radar, underappreciated, unheard of films that have slipped through the celluloid cracks.
Strikingly shot on 35mm in the no-man's-land vistas of New Mexico, indie western Dead Man's Burden takes a simmering familial conflict and sets it aflame under overexposed sunlight. Classical in its constant callbacks to the likes of John Ford, and Anthony Mann and authentic in its period art direction, despite a meager budget and single location, producer-turned-writer/director Jared Moshe knows his stuff, but has trouble fleshing out and distinguishing his undercooked vision.
Set in 1870 and still reeling from the end of the Civil War, married couple Martha (Clare Bowen) and Heck (David Call) attend the funeral of her father Joe who supposedly died falling from his horse. The official cause of death, is immediately contradicted by the opening scene, but surrounded by the graves of her war-slain siblings, it's one more death than Martha can stand. Dreaming of re-locating to San Francisco, shedding her farming skin and starting anew in the hotel business, Martha can make this happen so long as she and Heck can successfully broker a deal with mining company representative E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and sell her late father's plot of land. There's only one problem. Days before the deal goes through, Martha's older brother Wade (Barlow Jones) returns after a long absence, prompted by his estranged father's deathbed letter urging him to return home. Unexpectedly walking back into his ‘little sunshine's' life, Wade's ears are pricked and guns cocked, with Lane in his sights as an opportunistic swindler.
Tensions brew but nothing quite hits its target in Dead Man's Burden, landing just shy of the mark. It's a decent ensemble, especially considering how the material embraces genre tropes a little too eagerly, something each performer struggles with at times. Barlow Jones' repetitious 'I reckons' and continual talk of the never-present law, recalls a low-rent version of Seth Bullock.
Despite the odd stumble into pastiche, Clare Bowen manages to craft a more complex character in Martha, driven by a palpable, desperation to flee the homestead. The act of comprehending character motivations tends to rely on an audience's ability to relate to broad stroke emotions like desire, anger and fear, and the success of Bowen's performance is that we can actually feel the fire of all three, a fire specific to her that burns both sympathetically and selfishly. As her physically exhausted but toughened body hunches over, white-gold hair perpetually windswept across her face, Bowen displays true grit as a female fronting a western. Beyond the novelty value she's a heroine we can root for, somebody we want to make the best of her only chance of escape.
Jared Moshe does a commendable job of presenting Western iconography within a minimalist palette but is thwarted by his story's conventionality, clunky dialogue and a lack of compelling character development. Wade's fumbling awkwardness when it comes to ritual is a much-appreciated character beat in sharp relief to the nuance sorely lacking elsewhere. With such a svelte running time, Dead Man's Burden could have been pithily charged. When tackling big, explicitly stated themes of familial bonds and betrayal on such an intimate, self-contained playing field, the fury of those feelings ought to be apparent in every aspect. Character introductions and stand-offs should feel like third act revelations, but the film never ascends to the level of Greek tragedy as in Anthony Mann's The Furies, surely a source of inspiration for Moshe as the most famous example of a western with a female lead.
Even with a confined setting, the special dynamics are a little off. Wade's introductory scene, ending in a shoot-out between him and two men is shot at too great a distance, failing to build tension, invest the audience or lend the intended atmosphere. Sure, the cinematography has considerable mileage, but it can only take Dead Man's Burden so far. The film eventually finds surer footing, engaging more and more as it goes along, though low-impact exposition and verbal excursions into the past don't ruffle the film's fabric in quite the way they should.
Moseying when it needs to gallop, the opening scene is an example of Moshe lacking confidence in his abilities as a storyteller. It's supposed to start us off with a bookended bang, giving the audience more information than Wade has at the outset and theoretically lending suspense and intrigue to everything that follows. It's a solid in media res idea, and with stronger writing the notion might have worked. In execution it ends up hindering the film, unintentionally revealing that Moshe's characters are not engaging enough on their own terms.
Again, there's that fail-safe of the undeniable beauty of Moshe's debut, which captures the golden-streaked sunlight and sandy curvatures of desolation in the desert – and in truth, Robert Hauer's photography, is the star of the show. Dead Man's Burden is worth seeing, especially since its slim pickings for Westerns these days, but as a character-driven drama, character is where it comes up short.
Dead Man's Burden opened May 3rd at Village East Cinema in New York. It's held over for a second week from tomorrow. Tickets may be purchased here.
The film is schedule for a US VOD release mid-June.
For more information, visit the film's website and follow director Jared Moshe on Twitter.