by Anton Bitel
“Sometimes people just need solitude, you know,” says Eric Black (Tom Hughes) in writer/director Russell Owen’s Shepherd. Eric is explaining what has drawn him to become sole resident – apart from his dog Baxter and hundreds of sheep – on a remote coastal island. His addressee, the gruff, half-sighted boat woman Fisher (Kate Dickie) who is transporting him to his new job and home, warns him: “It’s easy to get lost here.”
Even before he arrives, Eric is clearly already lost. We first see him, suspended fully clothed beneath the ocean, before desperately swimming up towards the surface – and then attending the funeral of his wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss), her casket filled with commemorative objects in place of her missing body (although a hand reclaims her metal lighter just before the lid is nailed on the coffin). While Eric mutters in voiceover about sleeping and dreaming a lot, he can be seen standing before Sarah’s grave, with an ominous female figure behind him in the distance, and as the coffin shakes irrationally, Eric is woken in his bed by an alarm clock. Not that being awake stops him having visions of a baby beckoning from the drawer in his kitchen. Eric is racked with grief over the departed Sarah, and the unborn child she was carrying when she died – but he is even more racked with a guilt which, though as yet unspecified in its nature, has been formally advertised by the quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XVIII) that opened Shepherd: “Pregnant and lorn he left her by the sea. Such guilt so heavy a punishment endures”.
So while the island, with its grassy hills, rocky outcrops and bleak wintry weather, may be a place of grounded solidity, it is also clearly an arena for a lost soul to confront what haunts and harries his conscience, as his estranged, widowed mother (Greta Scacchi) and other ghosts from the past come a-knocking. Acrophobic and anxious, Eric is not unlike the solitary, locked, no longer fully functioning lighthouse by the sea. For Eric too is in need of a key to open him up, and of enlightenment to help him through the darkness towards some kind of revelatory illumination, and if he has been hired to count sheep, he – and we with him – quickly lose track of whether he is still awake or already asleep and dreaming once more. Certainly the spaces that he occupies become ever more irrational, reflecting the shadowiest corners of his mind, as this geographical landscape doubles as a mental one.
“Am I dead?”, Eric will ask, repeatedly. Shepherd openly flirts with the Biercean type of narrative famously brought to cinema by Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) – but it also uses the one-eyed Fisher with her (dead) pet raven, and the odd orthostatic rune, to evoke Norse mythology, while slyly alluding via its isolated lighthouse setting to another hallucinatory story of guilt and self-deceit, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), and even, through an abandoned ship, to Chris Smith’s Sisyphean psychodrama Triangle (2009). The result is a story which, though familiar enough in outline, remains difficult to pin down more precisely, owing to the way that mythic, oneiric, psychological and supernatural frames are all available at once and in parallel to map the shifting contours of this weatherbeaten location.
Ambiguous and elusive, Shepherd is immaculately crafted to disorient at every turn. Owen’s film is a masterclass of creepy atmosphere, beautifully shot by DP Richard Stoddard in a range of lived-in sets and climatic conditions, and with Edwin Matthews and Callum Donaldson’s windy, creaky sound design bringing a constant unsetting chill while transforming interiors and exteriors alike into a huge haunted house. Here one man truly is an island, imprisoned forever by a sense of complicity and culpability in a burning hell of his own making.
Shepherd is playing as part of the BFI London Film Festival
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