A ruminative study in character and environment, writer-director Jared Moshé’s debut feature, Dead Man’s Burden, feels closer in spirit to Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff than Quentin Tarantino’s flashy, namedropping spaghetti-western pastiche Django Unchained, even when Moshé goes out of his way to frame a doorway shot in overt homage to The Searchers, or include a rendition of John Ford’s favorite hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River?” Cinematographer Robert Hauer, lensing the New Mexico landscapes in widescreen Panavision, shows an eye for harsh, sun-stricken terrain. With a handful of main characters and about as many locations, Dead Man’s Burden feels more like a psychodrama than a horse opera. Moshé’s script hinges on the malleable ambiguity of certain events, allowing a complex interplay of possible interpretations to arise, until the twisty third act definitely puts paid to any questions concerning motivation with a resolution that disturbingly returns full circle to the film’s initial act of violence.
Dead Man’s Burden refracts the cataclysmic social divisions of the post-Civil War period through the experiences of the fractious McCurry clan. Returning veteran Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs), his belated homecoming prompted by a letter from a dead man, finds his family’s recent history written across their tombstones. Only Wade’s sister, Martha (Clare Bowen), and her husband, Heck Kirkland (David Call), remain, and then only until they can unload the homestead on local mining magnate E. J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor), whom Wade immediately assumes has orchestrated his father Joe’s (Luce Rains) untimely demise. Suffice to say, nothing is as clear cut as it initially appears; the unfolding narrative’s switchback revelations nicely subvert any number of genre stereotypes, not least among them the traditional treatment of woman as cultural harbingers. Here Martha is portrayed as a rifle-toting, fiercely independent frontier woman, a character who brings to mind Barbara Stanwyck’s firebrand ranch owner in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns far more readily than she does, say, Cathy Downs in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.
Most crucially, the nominally cohesive forces of family and community are finally not quite all they’re cracked up to be: “Power and greed and corruptible seed,” as Bob Dylan sang it, “seem to be all that there is.” The lone exception turns out to be Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehle), himself something of an outcast, the dead patriarch’s only friend. Riehle brings weather-worn gravitas to the role, and his evolution as the story progresses comes as one of the film’s biggest, most welcome surprises. Dead Man’s Burden isn’t entirely unburdened by faults (some of the script’s more portentous lines, delivered in canted, semi-poetic Deadwood-speak, tend to ring a bit hollow), but in a pop-cultural moment often compromised by bloat and bombast, it’s always a pleasure to encounter genre ambition contained in such a sinewy-shot, emotionally resonant, and gorgeously photographed package.