Film Review: Dead Man's Burden

First-time feature writer-director Jared Moshe's intense drama of secrets and lies dragged out into the blazing sun of post-Civil War New Mexico charts the downfall of the McCurry family through the uneasy relationship of its last living members, sibli

It begins as it ends, with killing: First, Martha McCurry Kirkland (Clare Bowen) shoots her father in cold blood, then Wade (Barlow Jacobs), en route to the McCurry homestead for the first time since he left for the war, kills the Ainsworth brothers (Adam O'Byrne and Travis Hammer), whose persistent questioning eventually reveals that Wade chose to betray his Southern roots and fight for the Union. In all, the stage is set for an awkward homecoming: Wade doesn't even want to read the letter from his estranged father that greets him when he runs across the local sheriff. But that's the thing about blood, the sheriff counsels: It's the tie that binds, whether you like it or not.

So Wade continues home, to a greeting pitched somewhere between shock and dismay: Martha and her solid, if high-strung, husband Heck (David Call) both thought he was killed in the war, like the rest of his brothers. And Pa is dead, says Martha, without stating the circumstances. And so begins a long, slow circle around the unspoken truths that could have been written by Ibsen, if every declaration weren't punctuated by fussing chickens, foraging goats, snorting horses and wind rustling through the sad patch of wheat planted next to the low, cramped McCurry house.

Longtime producer turned director Jared Moshe's influences are clear and impeccable: Sergio Leone, late-career Clint Eastwood, Anthony Mann, Fredric Remington, John Ford (the most memorable shot from The Searchers—a view onto the vast, empty outdoors from within a small, dark cabin—is referenced early and, it must be said, to good effect) and even Georgia O'Keefe, by way of the New Mexico landscape she painted for much of her career. And his dedication to physical authenticity is admirable—the credits include a historical consultant, and the costume and production design suggest sepia-toned vintage photos more than modern-day glosses on the bad old days.

But all that said, Dead Man's Burden is oddly lifeless, despite the clearly devoted efforts of the cast and crew: It's admirable without being particularly engaging, so respectful of its cinematic predecessors that its own voice is strangled. I want to see what Moshe does next, but can't imagine watching Dead Man's Burden again.