I do not get excited about most western movies. If Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda isn’t in it, I probably will not enjoy it. I chose to watch Dead Man’s Burden (written and directed by Jared Moshe) because Clare Bowen (Scarlett on ABC’s Nashville) is one of my favorite actresses. I began with the attitude that I enjoy Bowen’s work enough to tolerate a western. Little did I know that I would watch this movie twice in one weekend.
Moshe’s western has all of the “shoot em up” and acts of revenge you would expect from a western, but it is much more complex. It is not immediately evident that Bowen’s character, Martha Kirkland, is the protagonist. At first it seems like a typical conflict between “good guy” Wade McCurry (played by Barlow Jacobs) and Heck Kirkland (played by David Call). Moshe downplays the star role to emphasize the insignificance of women who lived on the barren western front. He demonstrates the psychological desperation of women doomed to this dirty, hungry, and barren life through Martha. The landscape itself screams of dirt and oppression. Even when the film seems to move a little too slowly, Moshe is demonstrating the psychological effect of living in this environment.
We have seen many western heroines. Maureen O’Hara uses humor to portray an overbearing, but loveable, wife opposite John Wayne in Andrew McLaglen’s McLintock. Katharine Hepburn plays a tough woman opposite John Wayne in Stuart Millar’s Rooster Cogburn. While these grand ladies entertain us, we do not have a true sense of the typical life for women during these times. Bowen’s character has a different kind of strength – one born out of oppression. Her character is believable. The film might be titled Dead Man’s Burden, but the burden is clearly upon Martha Kirkland.