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LAFF 2012: Dead Man’s Burden | Review

Dry-Eyed Narrative: Jared Moshe’s Western Exercise An Intriguing Effort

Dead Man’s Burden PosterProducer Jared Moshe’s directorial debut, Dead Man’s Burden, is a mostly winsome procedure as an homage to the bare bones Western efforts of yore. While drawing easy comparisons to the output of John Ford, there’s definitely a touch of Anthony Mann in Moshe’s work, employing a slim film noir framework with a femme fatale that proves hell hath no fury like a dusty, blue-eyed lady whose lamps are fixated on greener pastures.

Set in 1870 New Mexico, immediately after the end of the Civil War, a young woman named Martha (Claire Bowen) blasts a man in the face with a rifle, who had been in the midst of fleeing on horseback. We come to learn that this man was her father when her prodigal brother, Wade (Barlow Jacobs), returns home, leery of facing the parent that vowed to shoot him if he ever were to return. Forced to kill several men thinking him to be a deserter and then traitor (laying the scene for the burgeoning antebellum politics of the time period), Wade comes into possession of a strange letter from his father begging him to return home. Tense family history and strange circumstances surrounding his father’s close-casket funeral cause the righteous Wade (who has been a Wyoming sheriff for the past several years) to question his sister and her vicious and ornery husband, Heck (David Call), both hell-bent on selling their expansive land in order to run off to San Francisco and open a hotel. Turns out sister Martha and brother Wade are quite close, and she’s overjoyed to learn that he hasn’t been dead all these years, after all. But her fierce loyalty for her favorite kin may prove to be her undoing.

With a story as simple as connect the dots, Dead Man’s Burden loses a lot of steam at about the midway point, though it is helped along by the atmospheric cinematography. And one gets the sense that our characters are nothing more than barely fleshed out stock characters, especially our protagonist, Wade, played by Barlow Jacobs, an actor involved in some highly regarded indie work such as Shotgun Stories (2007) and That Evening Sun (2009). He fits the bill, but beyond his complete and utter devotion to doing the right thing (including switching sides during the war, a big no-no), there’s nothing really engaging about his character, and he’s certainly not awarded any mysterious appeal, as say, the Man With No Name. The most intriguing character is Martha, a feisty lady with questionable morals, but one is left wanting more with her development as well. What exactly was her relationship with Pa like? Did she have some issues like Barbara Stanwyck has with her daddy in Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950)? But even if Moshe fails to engage us with a saggy midsection, he does manage to give us a memorable opening and closing sequence. While it doesn’t reach the height of exuberance seen in many of the films it invokes, Dead Man’s Burden is an intriguing effort, and one that gives us an unusual female, whose soul is as dry as the split ends of her sun burnt hair.

Reviewed on June 16 at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival – Narrative Competition.
93 Min

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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