|Martha (Clare Bowen) in Dead Man's Burden.|
By Don Simpson
Dead Man's Burden is clearly made by someone who unabashedly loves the western genre, though writer-director Jared Moshé does make some notable updates to the genre. Most importantly, Moshé places a strong female character in the lead role, a character -- Martha McCurry (Clare Bowen) -- whose closest cinematic kin would be Michelle Williams' Emily in Meek's Cutoff.
Despite being married to Heck (David Call), a man with a violent criminal past, Martha maintains full control over her household. After murdering her father (Luce Rains) in the film's striking opening scene, Martha becomes a full-fledged landowner. The problem is, she does not want the land; Martha wants to sell her family's New Mexico homestead to a mining corporation for enough cash to open a hotel in the burgeoning town of San Francisco. With her father dead, it seems as though Martha's dream will certainly come true, but then a long presumed dead brother reappears. Wade (Barlow Jacobs) has lofty aspirations of turning his family homestead into a full-fledged farm. Thus, a family feud begins.
Shot on lush 35mm film (by Robert Hauer) with impeccable production design (Ruth De Jong), costume design (Courtney Hoffman) and art direction (Jason Byers), Dead Man's Burden is a visual masterpiece. Bowen's unsettlingly conflicted performance as Martha is nothing short of amazing; Jacobs and Call's performances are also spot on. Occasionally, a few performances do veer a bit too far into the realm of the melodramatic for my tastes. However, I will chalk that up to the periodically stilted dialogue and the film's studious allegiance to a machismo-yet-melodramatic genre.