Dead Man's Burden: LAFF Review

Dead Man's Burden Los Angeles Film Festival - H 2012

Dead Man's Burden Los Angeles Film Festival - H 2012

An intense family drama that plays out as a low-key Western.

Writer-director Jared Moshé’s debut feature follows a struggling young family living on an isolated New Mexico homestead a few years after the Civil War.

Writer-director Jared Moshé’s debut feature is a taut, efficient and ultimately evocative small-scale Western that benefits from tight scripting and proficient performances. Both limited theatrical exposure and homevid release are distinct possibilities for this carefully crafted film.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, even the distant American frontier continues to suffer the strains of the epic conflict. On an isolated New Mexico homestead, Martha Kirkland (Clare Bowen) and her husband Heck (David Call) bury her father, a stern patriarch and impoverished farmer. With both her parents dead and her brothers all killed in military service, Martha prepares to sell off the marginal property to an aggressive copper mining company and use the profits to move to San Francisco with her husband.

The unexpected appearance of her brother Wade (Barlow Jacobs) – whom she believed had died in the war -- confounds Martha’s plans, however, particularly when he becomes suspicious about their father’s cause of death, which neighbor Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehle) contends may not have been accidental, as Martha maintains.
Wade quickly takes a firm dislike to slick mining company representative E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor), who’s scheming to buy the ranch, and urges Martha not to sell. His younger sister contends it’s the right decision however, but as details emerge about Wade’s war record and Heck becomes impatient with his brother-in-law’s interference with the sale, tensions and distrust quickly escalate.

Moshé adopts an oblique approach disclosing the details of story, centering the characters’ conflicting motivations around the deep wounds and divisions of the Civil War, as well as the frequent greed associated with exploiting the resources of the American West. Some problems with narrative continuity are distracting, however, and may warrant reevaluation.

The small cast effectively mines the veins of jealousy and mistrust running throughout the script, incrementally escalating the hostility among the characters. Wavering between devotion to his sister and a commitment to justice, Jacobs has a firm grasp on Wade’s warring loyalties. Bowen, the only woman in the cast, shines in the central performance as Martha, torn between her husband and the only family member she has left in the world. Supporting castmembers are solid, particularly Call as Martha’s volatile husband with a violent past and veteran Riehle as their suspicious neighbor. Realistic period dialogue enriches the performances overall.

By shooting mostly exteriors, with only a single interior setting, Moshé achieves an elegant economy of both style and execution that also incorporates a variety of ruggedly magnificent New Mexico landscapes. The movie profits enormously from being shot on film stock, although the filmmakers have perhaps too much affinity for sepia-toned natural lighting.

Studied camera placement and movement adhere to genre conventions without obtrusive imitation and gunfight sequences are well coordinated, observing the innovations and limitations of available period weaponry. Careful attention to period details – including clothing, utensils and interiors – and depicting the harsh realities of frontier life pays off with dividends, lending the film an immersive resonance.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Cast: Barlow Jacobs, Clare Bowen, David Call, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Richard Riehle
Director/screenwriter: Jared Moshé
Producer: Veronica Nickel
Executive producers: Jennifer Chikes , Ruth Mutch, Nick Quested
Director of photography: Robert Hauer
Production designer: Ruth De Jong
Costume designer: Courtney Hoffman
Editor: Jeff Israel
Music: H. Scott Salinas
No rating, 93 minutes.