I’ve always enjoyed a good Western. There’s nothing like the old West for the setting of a great morality play. The characters get to play dress up; the horses come blazing in; and the heartbreaking vistas make for some dramatic backdrop to the inevitably inconsequential human emotions. Finding something fresh, new, and vibrant to say by way of the American Western – if it’s alright to dub it a uniquely American story – is the tough sell; one could argue that they’ve been done to death. If DEAD MAN’S BURDEN is any indication, then Boot Hill better make room for this ‘yawner’ to rest in peace.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come’, then read on …)
The Civil War is over, and the newly re-constituted United States are still reeling from the great conflict that once divided the Union. Wade McCurry (played with modest appeal by Barlow Jacobs) receives a letter from his father; the letter calls the young man back to his family – to the exact place where the elder settler once banished his son from. What Wade finds is his little sister Martha (Clare Bowen) and her outlaw husband Heck (David Call) struggling to retain the homestead from a shady land developer (Joseph Lyle Taylor) … or so he thinks.
DEAD MAN’S BURDEN is a film bookended by two deaths – that of the elder McCurry (Luce Rains) and another one I won’t spoil – and what takes place in between tries very hard to be the stuff of ‘high drama’; the problem is that it isn’t very ‘high’ nor very ‘dramatic.’ Instead of indicting the players, I’ll happily point the finger of blame at Jared Moshe; while he has an established track record as a producer, this is his debut writing and directing assignment, and it feels incredibly sloppy. It could be his inexperience in these areas, or it could be that he believed this story about life, death, and family had more impact than it really did; whatever the case, I think it most likely it’ll all end up being that the auteur bit off more than he could chew.
Despite Jacobs’ top billing, this feels as though it was intended to be a break-out vehicle for Bowen. She’s the only one given multiple emotions to play out in the 93-minute story, but hers and everyone else’s delivery is so stilted and languorous I’d imagine the film could’ve been a brisk 60 minutes if Moshe had just cut out the pauses. At best, her ‘Martha’ appears to be more complex than she truly is, forcing Jacobs into untenable position of seeing justice served (yet again) in one more competent Western.
In fact, I have to wonder if BURDEN wasn’t originally structured perhaps as a stage play (???). So much of the story takes place in a single location – what does evolve out of other locations could’ve easily been relegated to expository dialogue by characters in the same setting. Either that, or director Moshe always wanted to do a Western, so he was counseled that he could do it cheaply if he set it all in a single, relatively generic locale available on any studio backlot. Like the story, there isn’t much depth to BURDEN visually; most of it is dry as mulch that’s been left out in the sun way too long.
There are a couple of nice moments of old school, John Ford-style cinematography in there, but otherwise BURDEN feels burdened more by its own ineffectual weight than it does anything else.
DEAD MAN’S BURDEN is produced by Illuminaria Productions and Stick! Pictures. DVD distribution is being handled by Cinedigm and New Video. As for the technical specifications, it all looks about as well as an independent Western should, though I had to turn on the subtitles in order to understand a few snippets of dialogue. As is often the case with these smaller releases, there’s only a smattering of special features: some deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer was all that came over the horizon.
RECOMMENDED only for fans of Westerns, though most will probably find this one wanting. It’s hard to say what was needed to elevate DEAD MAN’S BURDEN to the level of a legitimate oater (Google it, if’n ya need, pard’ner). Essentially, BURDEN is an independent film that just so happens to be set in the days of the old West, and it takes place somewhere out on the unexplored plains that are all too nicely trimmed to feel like a legitimate setting … well, except for maybe a movie, that is. Its characters are flat, the story has been done to death, and the actors (for some reason) draw out their dialogue with so many inexorable pauses that all the life was sucked from my soul while watching this yawner. True story.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cinedigm and Flatiron Film Company provided me with a DVD copy of DEAD MAN’S BURDEN by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.