A slow-burning oater that’s not gun-shy when it matters, “Dead Man’s Burden” reps an impressive first feature from producer-turned-helmer Jared Moshe. Set right after the Civil War, this intimate story — it’s essentially a four-hander — compensates for its small scale with widescreen New Mexico vistas, and unfolds not just gradually but with the precision and force of irrevocable tragedy. The unknown cast is aces, and Moshe inscribes his loquacious film in the Western tradition without overdoing the references to the classics, suggesting this Cinedigm release could appeal to a genre-loving, indie-savvy crowd who’ll hopefully understand the pic’s clearly bigscreen material.
Just after the end of the war, tough gal Martha Kirkland (Aussie thesp Clare Bowen) buries her father with the help of her hubby, Heck (David Call). Her soldier brothers all died during the conflict, and the couple has decided to sell its modest plot of land in the middle of nowhere to a rather impatient copper company, repped by the oily E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor), and move to the big city out West.
But before the sale’s concluded, Martha’s testy brother, Wade (Barlow Jacobs), unexpectedly shows up. Turns out he’s a Union Army deserter rather than a casualty, and has decided to come check on his old man, even though father and son hadn’t spoken for years. Both siblings harbor a secret they’re unwilling to divulge, and it’s clear that the fact that they’re related isn’t enough to close the rift that’s opened between them during the war years. The siblings’ uneasiness hangs thick in the air from the moment they’re reunited, further fueled by their only neighbor (a scene-stealing Richard Riehle), who has his own theories about various events.
The early going has already hinted at what the characters are trying to hide, so scribe-helmer Moshe is free to focus instead on character development and the nervous atmosphere that slowly and convincingly turns into one of menace — a transformation that Bowen and Jacobs suggest in beautifully modulated and complimentary perfs.
Though set a couple of decades after Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Dead Man’s Burden” recalls that film’s reliance on dialogue rather than action to advance plot and suggest character, and like that feature, it pleasingly pays equal attention to its male and female protags. That said, Moshe’s film is closer to classical oaters in terms of its narrative construction and visuals, especially in the Fordian way it turns the semi-barren and sometimes overbearing landscapes into a majestic but desolate stage for misfortune (there’s never even a village in sight, furthering the idea these characters live in a literal as well as metaphorical no man’s land).
Shot in Panavision widescreen on traditional 35mm, the pic benefits greatly from Robert Hauer’s crisp and moody lensing. Great camerawork and restrained production/costume design are complemented by H. Scott Salinas’ score, whose straightforward guitar theme, like the rest of the film, is simple yet soulful. Sound mix at the screening caught wasn’t entirely up to par.