One of the most cinematically gorgeous independent films in a long time, “Dead Man’s Burden” (along with fellow 2012 indie “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” shot on Super 16) truly makes the case for celluloid. While watching this meditative Western, one simply wants to drink in the beauty of the image, and yes, that image is created on 35 mm film. They don’t make RED cameras that can do what this film achieves in terms of sheer richness of image. In the age of digital everything, might independent film, at one time the dominion of digital, be the savior of celluloid? “Dead Man’s Burden” (the directorial debut of Jared Moshé) demonstrates just why film is important, simply by being beautiful. But beyond that, it’s also a moody, violent, classic, yet modern Western.
“Dead Man’s Burden” starts and ends with a bang, a sun-dappled young woman looking down the barrel of a long rifle. There are quite a few gunshots in between those bookends; don’t get too attached to anyone, because the body count piles up. Martha (Clare Bowen) and Heck (David Call) are a young married couple looking to sell their farm and get the hell out of dodge for San Francisco. Wade (Barlow Jacobs) is Martha’s brother, presumed dead in the Civil War, who shows up on her doorstep, a burden of shame on his back. Upon this golden landscape plays out an intimate family tragedy of epic proportions. It’s a meditation on morality, survival and the sometimes tenuous ties that bind families together. Wade, Martha and Heck each share a capacity for violence and carry their past actions with them. But each has a different point of view on when and where to be violent, and these clash against each other as a copper prospecting Yankee banker, Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor), brings money into the mix. Wade believes deeply in the judgement of law and the black and white of right and wrong, while Martha, having lost her mother and three brothers, is just trying to stay alive and thrive by any means necessary. Heck is fiercely protective of Martha.
Beginning with an act of violence, and a mystery that establishes the tension, the methodical, deliberate pace gets the best of the film during the middle section, where Wade, having been gone a long time, learns about the current state of what’s left of his family. It’s here where “Dead Man’s Burden” begins to lag narratively, almost to a slow-motion like pace, but the good thing is that every frame is still impeccable. Shot by Robert Hauer, the film is stunning, each shot worthy of a photograph or painting, and simply the sunlight on the skin of the actors’ faces is sumptuous and glowing. The film feels permeated with sun; in spots of lens flare or the sun streaming through a door, characteristic of the American Southwest, and yet it remains lush and golden. The camera work serves the pace of the film, too, eschewing stereotypically “indie” handheld for traditional slow moving tracking shots that showcase the image perfectly and contribute to the deliberate pace. When handheld is utilized, it enhances those story moments well. The score serves the image beautifully, though at times it can feel a bit too on the nose, thematically, leading the audience where it doesn’t need to. Moments where the music remains abstract and atmospheric and meld perfectly with the cinematography are the most successful.
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“Dead Man’s Burden” is pretty darn classical in its themes, look and execution. The dialogue and performances are pitch perfect, almost to the point of too perfect, but the talented actors balance it just right. Bowen as the traumatized but steely young girl trying to make a life for herself is especially impressive; she compels the audience to both fear her and feel for her, and it’s quite a feat. Call is also a magnetic presence on screen, even when he’s still (especially when he is), and Jacobs holds the film together as the quiet presence of morality and judgment in a world gone mad. “Dead Man’s Burden” is worth the watch for its sheer beauty, but it’s also a slow burner of Western tragedy that hails many new talents to keep an eye on. [B+]