“It ever occurred to you he might of just changed his mind?”
A novice when it comes to the western genre, I won’t presume to say Jared Moshe’s directorial debut is a welcome contemporary installment in an otherwise nearly forgotten style. I will, however, label Dead Man’s Burden a well-composed, detail-oriented, slow burn of a cinematic treat. Definitely not for everyone due to its pacing and starkly dry atmosphere, what sets it apart against many of today’s films is the bold choice to reveal the secrets its characters keep from each other to its audience. In the first ten or so minutes we watch Martha Kirkland (Clare Bowen) kill her Pa and witness mysterious stranger Wade McCurry (Barlow Jacobs) explain his traitorous allegiance to the Union army with a couple well-placed bullets to the chests of two Confederate vets. How these details affect the estranged siblings’ dynamic is what earns our interest.
Set on a New Mexico farm with more dead bodies buried in the family plot than work the land, Martha and her husband Heck (David Call) look to use her father’s untimely demise as their ticket west. By restarting talks with E.J. Lane (Joseph Lyle Taylor)—emissary of a mining company that failed to wrestle the property from old Joe McCurry—the Kirklands hope to rid themselves of the painful memories wrought by the Civil War. Things look to be falling into place until the stoic Wade arrives courtesy of a letter Joe wrote weeks previously asking for his return. A former Deputy in Wisconsin, Wade can’t shake a feeling of wrongdoing after learning of the potential sale and listening to crazy neighbor Three Penny Hank (Richard Riehle) agree he would have been Joe’s last choice for assistance.
The questions Moshe does posit concern where these two have been and what’s led them back together. There’s a palpable love upon their improbable reunion—Wade was believed dead during the war like his Confederate brothers—that seeks to trump Heck’s distrust. He wonders why Joe told them Wade died and why he would then send for his help. Laconic and deliberate in his actions, the returned McCurry isn’t keen on illuminating his truth just as the cautious Kirklands tread carefully until Mr. Lane arrives with their money. But with a series of cold exchanges following between Heck and his brother-in-law sizing one another up, Wade eventually can take no more. Needing to determine whether foul play was involved in Joe’s death, his quest for answers leads them all onto a path towards betrayal.
Dead Man’s Burden increases its suspense because we know what these characters did—yet not necessarily why. Understanding that their transgressions must inevitably come out into the open keeps us guessing as to how each will react. While Wade is a man of supposed honor who would uphold the law even if it meant he himself was to face judge and jury, one of the Kirklands’ motivating factors for escape is the prospect of San Francisco’s lawlessness. It’s moral black and white against the murkiest of greys as their colliding on this New Mexico farm gradually reveals itself to possess no chance for happy ending. Their family remains fractured on its journey towards the future just as it unknowingly was during the war continuing to ravage them even now.
The sparse landscape is captured nicely in its sun-bleached glory as hand-scrawled tombstones stand against the setting sun while a solitary well keeps the McCurry farm going when Three Penny Hank’s cannot. Alongside weathered faces and dirty, sweat-stained clothes we see that selling her land is the only thing left for Martha to do short of suffering the same slow and painful death of her mother. The only spark in hers or Heck’s eyes comes when negotiating a price opposite the smug Lane; their greed prevailing over whatever semblance of love stumbled in on Wade’s back. And with guns firing in brief spurts of action to end what is a plodding middle third, we realize Martha’s opening act of violence already ensured that any death of importance would happen in close and without pause.
Moshe’s vision is one full of dangerous souls far-removed from redemption as God is seemingly all but absent from their deeds. Just as family proved not strong enough to keep the McCurrys together before the Civil War it appears the bond of blood has disappeared completely in the face of selfish desire and opportunity. Anger and rage exists within each character as Call’s Heck refuses to relinquish his place by Martha’s side and Jacobs’ Wade attempts to appeal to the little girl he left years ago. And in a tragically cyclical swoop of retribution we witness exactly how far she has fallen from the innocent, doting daughter of yesteryear. Bowen sinks her teeth into the complex role of Martha, desperately trying to play all angles and retain her humanity until she realizes there’s none left.
 Clare Bowen, by Philip de Jong
 Clare Bowen and Barlow Jacobs, by Rob Hauer