Opening with a serene, lingering shot of the New Mexico desert, Dead Man’s Burden invites us to marvel at this imposing, seemingly uninhabitable landscape. The arresting stillness is then unceremoniously broken as a man on horseback bursts across the screen. A young woman (Clare Bowen) watches him go, tears pooling in her eyes. And the very moment you believe you have the measure of her, she raises a rifle, takes dead aim and fires. Advancing on her wounded quarry—who’s revealed to be her father, Joe—she puts him out of his misery.
With this masterfully executed sequence, writer-director Jared Moshé immediately establishes an unforgiving milieu for his moody, minimalist Western. This is a hardscrabble, post-Civil War setting in which nothing can flourish but violence and regret—where wounds never fully heal and the past doesn’t take kindly to attempts at burying it.
Consequently, as Martha (Bowen) and her husband Heck (David Call) commit Joe McCurry to the earth, there’s little sense of closure. Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehle), Joe’s suspicious friend, wonders aloud why the casket is closed. A vulture from a mining company (Joseph Lyle Taylor) descends, enquiring whether the couple are inclined to sell their homestead. While they’re tellingly amenable to the idea, their schemes to cash in are complicated by the return of Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs)—a brother gone so long that Martha doesn’t recognize him.
While not so much as flinching when a gun is pointed at him, Wade grows skittish when asked where and with whom he fought during the war. Further mysteries follow: Why was Wade banished by Joe? Why did his father summon him back with his murder imminent? Why did Martha commit the heinous act that set all of this motion?
Moshé derives great tension from the siblings’ desire to reconnect while safeguarding their own secrets. Consequently, this is the rare Western in which the most compelling showdowns occur around a dining room table. (Shall we brand these “New Mexican standoffs”?) Even as their suspicions concerning one another mount, Wade and Martha maintain an air of forced congeniality. It’s remarkably unnerving to watch him continue to refer to her as “Little Sunshine” out of habit rather than any sort of affection.
Jacobs employs great restraint in his performance as Wade, a man hoping that a return home might restore normalcy to his life but instead finding his family—save Martha—reduced to tombstones. “Would’ve been nice to see y’all … alive, I mean,” he mutters at their collective graveside. The moment would be darkly humorous if Jacobs didn’t punctuate it with such heartache. While the anti-hero never endears himself to viewers, he does garner sympathy. Ultimately, the revelations concerning Wade’s backstory are hardly as shocking as his persistent belief that a moral balance can somehow be restored to a world that long ago went sideways. Influenced equally by decency and delusion, he cuts a tragic figure.
While his cast occasionally handles their vintage dialogue like a pair of cowboy boots they can’t quite break in, Moshé seems completely in his element. Boasting the widescreen lensing readily associated with oaters, Dead Man’s Burden is also fueled by the potent pessimism and fatalism that’s been the lifeblood of many of the genre’s classics.
Moshé deftly illustrates how a conflict that pitted brother against brother has fundamentally altered the unwritten laws that govern a family, leaving rampant self-interest in its wake. Meanwhile, he employs decidedly Old Testament notions when it comes to reckoning. While affording us frequent stunning glimpses of the badlands that stretches in every direction from the McCurry homestead, he never once suggests that Wade and Martha might have any avenue of escape from the path on which they’ve set themselves.
Rest assured: There will be blood. And when it spills, it doesn’t so much restore order as lend Dead Man’s Burden a brutal symmetry.
Director: Jared Moshé
Writer: Jared Moshé
Starring: Barlow Jacobs, Clare Bowen, David Call, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Richard Riehle
Release Date: May 3, 2013