Dead Man’s Burden

The American Western is an extension of the Samurai Epic before it. They’re tales of good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death. There’s always honor and dignity at stake. There’s a woman in peril. Men on horses fight the beautiful (but deadly) landscape.

Jared Moshe’s Dead Man’s Burden is an American Western. Note that there is a difference between an American Western and a Spaghetti Western. Spaghetti Westerns, while also based on Samurai films, focused more on style than on character. American Westerns (think High Noon) are about mood, character, and story. The style is only characterized by the beauty of the landscapes.

Dead Man’s Burden is a simple story, and that’s the way the classic Westerns, the John Ford Westerns, used to operate. You’ve got a hero named Wade McCurry (played by the always-great Barlow Jacobs), a white-hat-wearing Civil War veteran with a shady past, a young couple looking for profit in a barren wasteland, and an old debt that needs to be paid.

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I won’t go into specifics regarding the story, as its twists and turns make up a great deal of the film’s fun, but I will tell you that it’s a story told confidently and effectively by the first-time filmmaker. Jacobs plays McCurry with weight and distance the way Gary Cooper would have, and the entire film feels like an ode to the classic Westerns of the forties and fifties. From the music to the landscapes, Moshe has clearly studied and fallen in love with the genre.

Like Ed Harris’s Appaloosa from a few years back, Moshe has made a classical Western that in no way comments on, or layers over, the old-fashioned joy of a simple story told well. There are no atmospheric montages (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) or poetic interludes (Dead Man). Instead, we have a good man trying, in his way, to defeat a bad man.

The journey includes a good deal of talking, and, eventually, a greater deal of shooting. Its climax is likely to make your ears bleed in the theater, as Moshe certainly knows how loud real guns can be. Each shot is like a cannonball to the stomach, reminding us that these are instruments of destruction.

Jacobs, who appeared in Shotgun Stories a few years ago, the debut film of Jeff Nichols, has said that he looks for directors he sees things in, and when I watch Moshe’s work on Dead Man’s Burden, I know that Jacobs has chosen another great new talent. The film is confident, clean, and crafted in a way that only a good filmmaker can, but the script may be too focused on the past, too unwilling to bring something new to the genre.

Moshe’s film is well-paced, well acted, and deserving of attention from those who love a good Western.

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