November 6, 2013 -- They don't make many Western movies anymore. The genre lives on, mostly in a few indie and international productions, like this one, and the huge Hollywood flop, “The Lone Ranger.” Movies like this could kill the genre completely. It's better than “Dead Man,” but not by much.
“Dead Man's Burden” is an extremely grim and humorless tale of greed and revenge. Set in New Mexico just after the Civil War, the film starts right out with a cold-blooded murder followed by a gunfight between three Civil War vets, two of whom are sore loosers who became dead losers. Then, a stranger rides up to a ranch, and the guns come out. No welcome for strangers in this country. This is no country for anybody.
The stranger, Wade McCurry (played by Barlow Jacobs of “The Master”) is a deputy sheriff out of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who has seemingly come back from the dead. He has come in response to a letter from his father, Joseph, who asked him to come take care of his family. Wade has been away from home for years and his own sister, Martha (Clare Bowen) doesn't even recognize him. It is hard for the family to accept Wade, because he is supposed to be dead. Martha's husband, Heck Kirkland (David Call of “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”) is hostile and suspicious.
Wade quickly finds out that his father is dead. Martha tells Wade his father died very recently from injuries received after falling off a horse. Wade also finds out that his father had told everyone that he had died in the war, even though he knew that wasn't true. Wade's father had even told him he would kill Wade if he ever saw him again. That's why people were surprised to see him ride up to the family ranch. The reason Wade was disowned by his father is revealed later in the movie.
Wade is suspicious about the recent death of his father and the sudden decision by his sister to sell the family ranch to a mining company interested in working nearby copper deposits. He goes to see an old family friend, Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehle of “Office Space”). Hank thinks that Joseph McCurry was killed for his land by a mining company businessman, E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor of “The Dark Knight Rises”).
Wade starts his own investigation of his father's murder. What he finds is evil of the darkest kind, a Shakespearean tragedy. His investigation stirs up a lot more trouble than he bargained for. Old secrets are revealed. It turns out that the McCurrys are a family to be avoided.
Unlike most Westerns, there are no heroes in this movie, just a collection of greedy, back stabbing, bitter, angry, dangerous varmints. Wade McCurry has a certain tragic nobility, like Hamlet. He is cursed with having to deal with a rotten family and other, equally dangerous people. He can't get along with these people since they are evil and he is rigidly moral.
This is the kind of movie that needs to be seen on a big screen. Unfortunately, I was only able to see it in a low-resolution video. The camera work by Robert Hauer is quite good, making good use of some vibrant New Mexico landscapes festooned with cholla cacti.
I didn't really care for this movie. Despite the beautiful scenery, the people are ugly. Clare Bowen, who plays Martha, is gorgeous. She doesn't look like an ranch wife at all. Her face hasn't been burned by the harsh New Mexico sun, but she hates the very land she lives on. In traditional Westerns, there is an implied reverence for the land. In this film, the land is an enemy.
When I say the people are ugly, I'm talking about their minds. I realize the Old West was a harsh place with harsh people, but these people remind me too much of the worst people around nowadays. There are enough greedy, unfeeling, irresponsible, destructive people in politics and business we all have to deal with these days. The last thing I need is to see people just like them on screen in some Old West fiction. This film rates a C.
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