"Dead Man's Burden" opens with hoof-prints and gunshots; we're immediately tossed into the deadly and dusty world of the post-Civil War American West. Martha (actor Clare Bowen, a dead ringer for Jennifer Lawrence) holds a steady rifle, a frontierswoman ready for anything and everything, her intrepid husband Heck (David Call) by her side. The very next scene features even more in the way of gunplay, as Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs) finds himself in the cross-hairs of two brothers who feel he was on the wrong side of the war. These are the types of scenes "Dead Man's Burden" will feature throughout, long stretches of slowness followed by an impasse, punctuated by violent outbursts. The film doesn't come into focus contextually until the closing moments, but as the bullets fly the rhythm is established right from the outset.
As to that focus, therein lies one of the issues with "Dead Man's Burden". The first 30 minutes or so of the film are spent pondering, "Now what is this guy's problem?" Much as with iconic show "The Wire," you're thrown into the deep end, though it worked much better on the gritty streets of Baltimore than it does the farmland of Texas. If one is going to attempt a narrative that's unburdened by exposition (at least initially) then the emphasis must be placed on the character development, and "Dead Man's Burden" features characters that are all out of "Western Genre 101" central casting. It ends up being a rather straightforward tale, only with artificial constraints placed on the momentum of the story. If you were going to point to a slight stumble, this is the point where you'd hang your hat (pardner). Yes, I fully apologize for the prior pun.
Luckily, there is much more good than bad to be found. Lovely shots are a mainstay of "Dead Man's Burden," with newly minted writer-director Jared Moshe showing an aptitude for composition and light. The acting is also subtle and well executed, even though the characters aren't given much to do, they honor the material through great performances. It wouldn't be a shock if a few "name" actors were mined from the ranks of "Dead Man's Burden's" younger cast. The logic also works once the exposition is tackled, there aren't logical problems or anything of the sort, as the more pressing issue is pacing.
"Dead Man's Burden" rests on the sturdy footing of most Westerns, there's the man from nowhere (Wade) trying to solve a mystery, all while his sister Martha pines for a better life. Heck the husband stands by his woman, come what may, and there's a surly old gentleman with a vested interest in justice. Finally, there's the huckster land baron, looking to acquire the McCurry farm for the vast natural resources it possesses, and of course on the cheap. It's not particularly world-changing fare, but most of the innovative Western films of the past decade just so happen to not actually be Westerns ("Serenity" "Inglourious Basterds"), so it's hard to fault one that is trying so hard to be authentic. "Dead Man's Burden" is steeped in the proud tradition of "Tombstone" and "A Fistful of Dollars," or "3:10 to Yuma" or "Appaloosa" if you're pining for more modern examples.
Would I watch "Dead Man's Burden" again? I would not. Is it a well-made film? It is indeed. Ponderous but lovely, simple but elegant, "Dead Man's Burden" is certainly a film that will appeal to fans of the genre. As for everyone else? Well, I don't think they'd seek out the title in the first place, and so this is a clear case of a film aiming for and hitting its intended target. Any cowpoke could do far worse.
SCORE: 7.0 / 10