22 June 2024

BFI London Film Festival Review – Shepherd (2021)

Grieving widower Eric Black seeks the ultimate seclusion by accepting a position looking after 600 sheep on a remote island. Unfortunately, by barricading the door to the outside world he elucidates a terrifying crawlspace for harrowing manifestations from another.

Director Russell Owen‘s technically polished study of supernatural browbeating and guilt repression shares inspirational chromosomes with Robert EggersThe Lighthouse. That of  The Smalls Lighthouse tragedy.

This Poe-Esque Welsh folktale examines the fate of a lighthouse keeper in the early 1800s. A poor soul who was compelled to spend 3 weeks couped up with a dead colleague rather than dispose of the corpse and become a murder suspect.

Constructing a makeshift coffin and tying him to the outer walls provided some respite until that is the box disintegrated in high winds. The cadavers’ limbs, buffeted by the elements and silhouetted against the lamp, were interpreted as friendly wavings by passing ships. The surviving keeper’s post-trauma psychological analysis prompted a law that prohibited less than three men from manning a lighthouse forthwith.

Whilst both have roots in this evocative recounting, they are lightyears apart in terms of aesthetics and agenda. The Art House featherbed of Eggers’ picture takes the tale as a narrative starting point before spreading its esoteric wings in an interpretational direction. Owen’s more accessible treatment delves deep into its thematically rich melting pot and uses the Gothic-infused contents to flesh out an insidious micro-verse of creeping paranoia.

As such, the two films are virtually unrecognisable as descendants, and any direct comparison is rendered moot.

Eric’s backstory is painstakingly exposed in a series of flashbacks and ambiguous encounters all filtered through a kaleidoscope of bleak supernaturalism. Shepherd is determined to develop the full scope of its horrors at its own deliberate pace. It can feel a tad laboured and repetitious, however, the rewards of its finespun slow-burn are well worth the investment.

The cleverly stage-managed scenes of discombobulating bedevilment are thickset with misdirection and the bombastic jump scares storm from the leftfield with a casual confidence that feels earned. There is a near-constant barrage of disturbing imagery, not least one stunning aftermath scene designed to scar minds, and, of course, the ubiquitous final twist that to the film’s credit is well disguised and satisfyingly machiavellian.

Shepherd is an obvious labour of love crafted with almost obsessive attention to mood and texture. The limited budget does not compromise its dramatic cinematic presence as a whole but it does bleed onto the screen in a more subtle fashion.

In balancing the film’s sense of ambition relative to its tight purse strings there is an aura of workmanlike sterility that dampens its impact. By no means does it derail the picture, yet you get the feeling there were elements of financial frustration that made a struggle out of creative freedom.

Owen strikes me as a director who would devour a large budget and spit out a full-blooded classic rather than cookie-cut a generic platitude. He has a definitive understanding of the cinematic poems that can blossom in the fetid backwaters of the psychological horror flick and the delicate touch required to transcribe them into organic terrorscapes.

With Shepherd, he has crafted a snapshot of extreme isolation that sneaks up on the audience to replicate the mental distress of its protagonist. A paradoxically imperfect exercise in perfectionist filmmaking that beguiles but also beleaguers.

A bold champion of dense atmospherics over superficial pyrotechnics the film’s intense creative integrity makes for an immersive and affecting horror experience. However, the same controlled fastidiousness often renders it curiously soulless.

★★★

        WORLD PREMIERE

Psychological thriller/horror | UK | 2021 | 15 | 103 mins | Darkland Distribution, G C Films, Castle Valley Films Ltd.| Dir. Russell Owen | With: Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Greta Scacchi

Shepherd hits UK cinemas on 26th November 2021


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