“Dead Man’s Burden” is a western-melodrama, a movie comprised of two genres that rarely exist anymore. It’s been said that the horror movie is the only genre that can exist without star power but the contemporary western can also. It’ll probably never be as big as it once was, but it has cult status now. Put people on some horses and you’ve got a small audience.
There’s a fair amount to like about “Dead Man’s Burden” and certain things that hold it back. It’s the product of “Storage Wars” producer and documentary producer Jared Moshe who’s making his writing and directing debut. And some of its problems might be chalked up to first effort stumbles.
An overarching problem is that you really see the sets and the performances. There’s always this underlying sense that we’re on a visit to a pioneer days historical site. The performances are self-consciously of the times and there’s something that feels a little inauthentic about the clothes and the sets. The performance aspect is especially true of Clare Bowen who plays Martha. Her dialogue feels a little like mimicry and she’s a little too Hollywood pretty for a frontier farm wife. Then again, a person can’t help the way her face looks and even pretty people had to do something in the Old West.
The story is about frontier life in the years following the Civil War and revolves around family divisions due to the North-South divide. In the opening scene, Martha kills a man on horseback later revealed to be her father. This enables her and her husband Heck (David Call) to sell the land to a mining developer (Joseph Lyle Taylor). The father wanted to continue the struggling farm and wouldn’t hurry up and die. But before he was killed he sent a letter vaguely warning of trouble to his estranged son Wade (Barlow Jacobs), a former sheriff’s deputy and disgrace to the family because he fought for the Yankees. Then Wade comes calling with questions. That’s the central plot, but there are various “shocking” character twists and conflicts that play out.
Things move at an ambling pace for the first half while the various players and conflicts that set off the drama to come are established. This is further enhanced by plenty of long duration shots which requires more patience from the audience. Most recent movies have a cut every five seconds or less but this one frequently has shots that last much longer. The opening shot is well over 20 seconds. But once things get going, the payoff is satisfying with suspense, intrigue, and some gunplay.
The movie is shot in naturalistic photography which gives it a less classical feel than most westerns and makes for some nice nature shots. That and having Martha, a woman in the lead (unusual in a western), is a way that filmmakers, who feel the western has been somewhat played out, distinguish their movies from those of their predecessors.
So my conclusion is a compromise. Half this movie works well and the other is sluggish. However, western fans will be the only ones that will give the movie a chance anyways.
** (out of 4)
David Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.