I always welcome a new Western, and writer-director Jared Moshe’s impressive debut Dead Man’s Burden takes us to a darkly realistic Old West. The dry New Mexico landscape is beautiful but unforgiving, and the law is three days ride away. The times are hard and the women are harder. The Civil War ended five years before, but families are still reeling from losing a generation of young men.
As the film opens, a man rides away on horseback. A petite woman, young but worn, hoists an 1853 Enfield rifle to her shoulder, takes aim and fires. We later learn the identity of the man, his relationship to the woman and her reason for firing. It’s not what you might guess. And the villain is not who you expect it to be.
Moshe’s story reveals some characters to be bound by duty and others to be opportunistic. They are caught in the same web of circumstance, which funnels inevitably them to conflict. The movie’s final two shots echo an earlier moment, and neatly (if grimly) wrap up the tale.
The cast – Barlow Jacobs, Clare Bowen (Scarlet in ABC’s Nashville), David Call and veteran Richard Riehle – is uniformly good. Jacobs (Kid in Shotgun Stories) is especially well suited for a Western hero, with expressive eyes that narrow like Eastwood’s or Van Cleef’s.
There’s a gunfight that is more historically typical than the usual cinematic facedown in the street. These men, hunters and former soldiers, chase each other through the brush, firing from cover. It ain’t heroic. And Dead Man’s Burden is remarkably unsentimental.
Dead Man’s Burden was shot on 35mm by Robert Hauer, and the look of the film brings out the isolating vastness of the land. Sadly, the sound is substandard, and I had difficulty comprehending some of the dialogue.
Dead Man’s Burden is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play.