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Shepherd Review- Supernatural Seas And Isolated Isles Breed Madness In This Scottish Chiller

Russell Owen’s Shepherd is a relentless shot across the bow that guilty men should heed. Revenge is a dish best served freezing cold and bottomless.

Courtesy of Saban Films

Something is wrong from the beginning. A disquieting melancholia blankets everything with a sense of barely controlled rage. Our first introduction to Tom Hughes’ Eric Black is emotional. He is at a funeral for his wife. He mourns her, and yet there is something else there. Something unspoken. Is it religious fervor? Was it guilt that he somehow drove her to an early death? At the beginning of Shepherd, we don’t know, but as the minutes tick by, we find out.

These types of films, like Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and The Witch, are polarizing. You either love them or hate them. However, writer and director Russell Owen is exceedingly patient with his story, as films like this require. He makes you work for your fear with a ruthless soundtrack and some arresting visuals of the gorgeous and grotesque variety.

There are hints of what is to come. There can’t help but be with the kind of throbbing ominous score that Callum Donaldson creates. It haunts with a dripping, moody atmosphere as thick as the fog that seems to blanket everything before and after Eric treks off into the great nothingness, hoping to escape a universal truth he can’t admit to himself yet.

Shepherd is at its heart a landscape-driven nightmare of suffocating proportions. Honestly, it is the kind of film that speaks to me. It’s not that I enjoy punishing men, although a good spanking never hurt anyone. But I digress; movies like this are so deeply rooted in feminine power I find my truest self in the grim moments of the demanding final act. If there was a more universal truth, then grief can kill a man, but guilt can do it faster; I don’t know one.

After losing his wife, Eric Black takes a shepherding job on an isolated island to find closure, peace, and maybe himself. But, as the lonely hours turn to days, Eric loses himself in the madness of this desolate place. Is he lost, or was he always gone? Everything about this foreboding island sucks you in, and before it is too long, you’ve succumbed to the mania that seeps into everything, wearing it down like the worn wood of the half-falling down cabin Eric now lives in.

The dilapidated house creaks and groans as much as it protects against the elements and is covered in dust and salt. This is a stunning, terrible, unforgiving place that Richard Stoddard’s camera captures to perfection. Cliffs and green hillsides murmur warnings that it’s too late to heed. Something swirls in the wind and the mist that makes it easy to lose time and your sanity. That’s by design. If you are lured here, there’s a reason.

Courtesy of Saban Films

Eric is not okay, and isolation will only make it worse. He says goodbye to his viciously cruel mother(Greta Scacchi), a nasty piece of work intent on cutting with her words because pain is all she has ever known. She wears her strict faith and judgment like a mask that thinly veils the monster that lives just underneath the surface. Veins of mental illness run deep in this family.

On the way across the sea, Captain Fisher, Game Of Thrones, Kate Dickie enigmatically asks if he is “escaping or running.” What a curious thing to say, considering it’s basically the same thing. What the cryptic woman asks next is even more troubling and hints that whatever drove Eric to this Godforsaken place wasn’t God and isn’t finished with him. Once on the isle, she won’t cross the kelp line and warns him it’s easy to get lost here, whether that be on the land or his own mind, we aren’t certain, but there’s enough in the early beats of the film to raise hairs and shoulders as we hunker down against the inevitable onslaught of misery that awaits. You get the impression that Eric’s fate is already sealed, and although he won’t admit it, he always knew it. Something supernatural is haunting or hunting him.

There have been complaints that most of Owen’s characters are too cold, too contained to drive the tension needed in these kinds of films. I found none of that to be true in Shepherd. Madness doesn’t have to be bombastic to be any less devastating. It’s essentially a one-person show, and Tom Hughes’s Eric Black bears the brunt of everything piled on top of his shoulders and haggard brow.

He goes about the early days, intent on caring for his animal charges and listening to the throbbing of the bell from the lighthouse. The first act feels like anything and everything will happen to Eric and his sweet collie Baxter. He flips his wife’s lighter like a totem that either penalizes or consoles. We wear a sense of impending doom like a wet blanket that neither insulates nor provides comfort against the elements. As the film progresses, that icy dread turns to fatalism, the same sort that permeated Owen’s first film.

Courtesy of Saban Films

A few breathtaking set pieces show us what’s inside a duo of abandoned locales full of cobwebbed goat heads and surrendered possessions. There’s one harrowing scene that pokes at your soft underbelly regardless of how hard we tried to bolster ourselves, and that’s by no means the last surprise in store. The set pieces are organic and do a great deal of the heavy lifting for Owen. The untouched land Shepherd was filmed on is easy to imagine as a mysterious void where people go to pay penance. Similar to the spectacularly atmospheric The Isle, there are powers at play that demand attention. Some people need to be punished. This place is unforgiving, perhaps because those that come here shouldn’t be forgiven.

There’s a grisly tableau in the final act that keeps you in Black’s perspective. It is shocking and gnarly and solidifies how savage this film is. Shepherd never lets up, whether it be the constant auditory assault or the surprisingly meanspirited frights. If I have one complaint, there are too many long pauses as Eric stares out into the great beyond with fear and later something akin to contempt. The camera loves Black’s stoic face, though, and this is a minor complaint.

While the ending isn’t as impactful as the promise delivered by the first half, there is enough to provide more than a few chills. Instead of feeling like Rachel had the agency she deserved, it feels more like one more lamb to the slaughter in the service of men. Kate Dickie’s Fisher goes a long way in rectifying that, though, as she has a steel-spined strength that feels as salty as the waters she sails. It seems fitting to watch a movie about violence against women when our Supreme Court looks poised to overturn Row Vs. Wade. There’s a bleak nihilism to everything that I hope doesn’t predict our future. Shepherd is in theaters this Friday, May 6th and VOD on May 10th, 2022