There is no creaky saloon or jangle guitar score in "Dead Man's Burden," the directorial debut of indie producer Jared Moshé, but its spectacular desert vista, sunburnt and caked in dust, lends the convincing aura of a magnificent Western. While technically a highly contained drama involving no more than four main characters and three locations, "Dead Man's Burden" benefits from its small scale by boiling down the genre to its barest ingredients. It has Western spirit in its bones, if not the means to pull it off on a grand scale, but that's enough to do justice to the grimy, bullet-battered standards it aims to satisfy.
Set against the golden landscapes of the New Mexican desert, "Dead Man's Burden" takes place in 1870, the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, at a barren outpost where old family wounds come to the fore. A fleeting prologue finds young blonde Martha (Clare Bowen) planting a bullet in her father's head and then melting into the arms of supportive husband Heck (David Call). Into this desolate scene rides Martha's long-lost older brother Wade (Barlow Jacobs), a former soldier-turned-deserter whom Martha had assumed dead during the war.
Unaware of the culprit behind their father's death, Wade is told the older man fell off a horse. But as he attempts to rekindle his relationship with Martha on their family's homestead, his suspicions grow. Meanwhile, the couple schemes to sell the land to a mining company represented by the slimy E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor). The suspense slowly builds without raising the stakes beyond the minuscule relationship drama in play. Moshé has made a Western by way of film noir.
Needless to say, "Dead Man's Burden" involves large scale themes of societal disarray in the last quarter of the nineteenth century alongside the more intimate drama that plays out between its small ensemble. Moshé's hugely talky screenplay delivers with the occasional gunplay, but largely unfolds over the course of extended conversations about the characters' waning goals. There is talk of dragging guilty parties before a judge, but no town ever takes shape; the majority of the action is rooted in a claustrophobic dining room and the surrounding rocky terrain.
Such minimalism imbues "Dead Man's Burden" with a haunting atmosphere, but Moshé's script can't always sustain it. The movie's uneven middle section struggles through an overabundance of exposition, distracting from the heated tension at the core of the situation. Just when it starts to fall apart, however, the story snaps back together for a gripping final act that cleverly subverts expectations.
Martha, hardly a damsel in distress despite the continuing attempts of the men in her life to treat her that way, takes on a fiery presence rarely seen in the genre. Jacobs, meanwhile, delivers a fine turn as the tale's stripped down anti-hero, whose focused glare is only bested by the great Richard Riehle as the family's only neighbor and close friend of the late patriarch. Riehle's snowy mustache alone has Western ferocity melded to its DNA, as does his ever-present scowl, and it's a true delight to see him emerge as the movie's secret weapon.
Moshé taps into John Ford's majestic eye more than Sam Peckinpah-level griminess or spaghetti western pastiche, yielding a resolutely quiet product, but "Dead Man's Burden" never aspires to the great heights of its precedents. However, with a slow-burn approach to its grave scenario and plotting that inches toward an inevitably bloody showdown, Moshé turns a dark, morally ambiguous universe into a tangibly unsettling oater. Cinematographer Robert Hauer's superb emulation of Western imagery -- one of the best cases for the continuing use of film stock in recent memory -- flows nicely with the credible performances and spare art direction, all of which downplay the idea of pastiche at work.
Nothing about "Dead Man's Burden" reeks of homage to oaters of yore -- instead, Moshé has made a legitimate entry in a genre he clearly adores. The movie is bookended with close-ups of a gun being fired, the ideal image to represent his intentions. While soaked in ambiguity, "Dead Man's Burden" maintains the Western requisite that bullets must find their targets.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lacking major stars and utilizing a mostly defunct genre, "Dead Man's Burden" has dicey commercial prospects but could find a welcome home on VOD.