In the traditional American Western, land is the most important commodity. Everyone wants it and most people are willing to kill for it. Dead Man’s Burden is not that Western. Here, individuals are more willing to kill to get away from land than they are to keep it.
The film opens with Martha (Clare Bowen) watching a man on horseback fleeing across the brushland of New Mexico. She raises a rifle almost as big as she is and fires at the retreating man. After closing in on his fallen body, Martha methodically packs a shot in the rifle, takes the time to put the loading rod back in its proper place and then fires again at point blank range. The resolute look on her face suggests her deep hatred of the man, a hatred that might seem startling when we learn he’s her father.
Martha’s feelings are shared by her long-lost brother Wade (Barlow Jacobs), who has received a letter from their father imploring him to come home. This raises Wad’s suspicion, because, as he explains tersely to the local sheriff, his father threatened to shoot him if he ever did come home. The reasons for this threat, like most motives in the film, are parceled out slowly. At least one explanation for the father’s upset is revealed in the fact that it’s 1870 and the Texas-born Wade is talking to the sheriff in the first place because he just got done shooting two former Confederate soldiers, men who defended the South to which Wade’s father was devoted until he died.
Wade’s return sets up the film’s central conflict, as well as the premise that people are trying to get away from land instead of claiming it. Martha’s brothers died in the Civil War (which is where Wade had reportedly died as well). She and her husband Heck (David Call) want to sell the family land—the burden of the film’s title—to some copper interests and open a hotel in San Francisco. Wade takes a quick look at the brush and the handful of chickens and declares that the land is worth turning into an honest to goodness farm.
Wade’s vision sounds enterprising, but it’s hard for Martha to share it. For her, the land represents death and lost dreams. Her mother died on it, trying to maintain a failing farm, and now her grave evokes bad memories. The camera here stays close to the small sod house that Martha calls home, so that the natural landscape that is usually used in stunning effect by other Westerns here looks confining. Martha has good reason not to want to be attached to this harsh landscape anymore, perhaps reason enough to kill her own father and lie to Wade. But as negotiations become increasingly complicated, her initial pleading with her brother gives way to a stone-faced anger, the same expression she wore when she killed her father.
Wade’s motivations are murkier than his sister’s. He looks sometimes like a typical Western gunslinger, all unstated responsibility and rigid morality. It appears that he’s come back to help his family, but instead he tries to take away the one thing that would actually help Martha, which is her choice to sell selling the land. It may be that he’s only what what generic conventions demand of him. If he has other reasons, these remain unclear, and so he remains flat as a character. And this becomes Dead Man’s Burden‘s burden, its ceaselessly murky, resolutely undeveloped protagonist.