Doesn’t it seem like film makers have been making ‘westerns’ forever? And personally, it seems like I’ve been watching westerns for almost as long. Last night, at Day 6 of the 2013 Sarasota Film Festival, I added another western to the lengthy list.
Directed and written by first time helmer Jared Moshe, Dead Man’s Burden, played to a packed house. Set on the harsh and hardscrabble lands of the New Mexico Territory in the post US Civil War era of the early 1870’s, the film basically has just 4 main characters, and takes place within a small area. There’s just one interior setting, and the rest occurs outdoors.
While it looks and feels like a western, it is worth noting that there are many things that we consider staples within the western genre that are NOT present in this film For example, there’s no town, no saloon, the law has a minimal presence, and the nearest judge is a good three days ride away.
Our story is simple. One small family is still reeling from the effects the civil war had on it. With Clare Bowen, currently seen as Scarlett O’Connor on ABC’s television series Nashville, as Martha Kirkland in the lead role, Moshe has taken a sure step away from the norms of the genre by creating a story with a woman as the central character.
Martha is married to Heck Kirkland played by David Call (NBC’s Smash, Nor’easter). As the film opens. Martha is dispatching a horseman who is riding away. A long-range rifle shot fells him from the horse, then Martha finishes the job from a range of two feet. The rifle report is as loud as we’ve ever heard in a movie. Shockingly loud. That’s your opening, and after a short fade to black we learn that Martha has shot and killed her own father, John McCurry.
Meanwhile, not too far away, we are introduced to another sole rider. This would be Wade McCurry, who has long been considered dead. In fact there’s a stone marking his grave in the family plot on their property. Only he’s not dead. He was driven off, and written off by old man McCurry for reasons not made entirely clear to us at the outset.
Wade is played by Barlow Jacobs who recently had a small role in The Master. Wade has to deal with a couple of rough and tumble guys before reaching the home of Martha and Heck. It is right after this small shootout, that we learn what has brought Wade back home after about 10 years.
And that would be a letter from his father.
Of course Martha doesn’t recognize him, and she and her husband Heck don’t trust him. Heck has to be convinced before only grudgingly allowing this stranger an opportunity to water his horses, before going on his way.
But Wade introduces himself to Martha. He knows stuff from her childhood, and so, she realizes that this stranger is really her older brother.
The fourth main character is Three Penny Hank, the only neighbor of the Kirkland’s. He’s played marvelously by Richard Riehl. You all know Riehle from TV. He might remind you of another noted character actor, Wilford Brimley.
The Kirkland’s want to sell their homestead and land, and a deal is in the works with a large mining company, whose rep is an oily character called E.J. Lane (below). Lane is not only shifty, but his waxed mustache, adds another element. It seem’s that the Kirkland land is the only place in the vicinity that has water. We learn from Three Penny Hank that there’s plenty of copper in the ground in the area, but a mining operation requires water, so that’s why they want to buy the Kirkland/McCurry property.
Now here’s the thing – Wade wants to settle in and become a farmer. Martha wants to sell the house and land and open a hotel in San Francisco. Clearly these are vastly different concepts. This is the conflict at the heart of the film.
Running some 93 minutes, this film is not quite ready to be called a brilliant movie. You will watch and enjoy the intensity. You will love the details of the clothing , the haircuts, the period language, manners, and courtliness of the characters. I also loved the sounds of the gunfire, the horses hooves, and most interestingly the jingle jangle of Wade’s spurs.
But realistically, this might have worked as a theatrical stage drama too. We see the dusty and parched land, and we get a sense of Martha and Heck living out there in the middle of nowhere. But the film is dialogue heavy, and offers less action than you might have hoped for. This is not to say that the film is dull, or not interesting, but at times, it seems slow-paced. Moshe’s script meanders along in no rush to fill in the missing details for us.
Martha and Wade, the last of the McCurry’s, each have their secrets. And as these secrets come closer to the surface, the tension rises. I think I liked the way Moshe lets the story unwind a little at a time but I can imagine that some of you may want to see more diversions than Three Penny Hank and E.J. Lane.
If you are looking for the grandeur of a John Ford western, you won’t find it here. This is a land that people don’t want to live on, or likely even pass through. This is not Monument Valley. The Kirklands want to leave so badly. When Wade asks Martha about the possibility of children, she tells him flatly that this is no place for children. And it works because the characters themselves are scarred. The vast unfriendly landscape mirrors that of the characters.
I liked Bowen’s Martha. She handles her role with a presence that is startling. You might feel the film even suffers a bit when she’s not on-screen.And I think this is because Moshe has given her a bit more dimension than he has given either Heck Kirkland or Wade McCurry.
Because the two male leads are both strong and silent, which we can call laconic, you can’t help but wish for more of Ms Bowen’s Martha.
Check out the trailer below.
I’m going to rate the film at three-point-five out of five, and I will recommend it. Its cinematic foot print might not be all that large. But Moshe has still given those smaller strides an impact that can be felt.