Shepherd 2021 Film Review

Shepherd (2021), directed by Russell Owen | FEATURE FILM REVIEW

It’s winter as I write this, so it’s cold and wet pretty much everywhere in the northern hemisphere this time of year. It’s particularly cold and wet in the North of England today, and misty too. So when I was watching Shepherd (2021) it wasn’t a huge leap to put myself in the cold, damp shoes of Eric Black (Tom Hughes), the grief-stricken protagonist of Russell Owen’s third feature film. Though his shoes aren’t ones I’d like to be in for long.

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A Shepherd guiding sheep in a place with no light.

Grieving for his wife and unborn child, Shepherd begins with Eric already at rock bottom. Rotten fruit and detritus fill his flat and, finding no solace from work or family, he takes a job as a shepherd on a remote, unspecified Hebridean island. Here, things go from bad to worse as Eric’s grief and guilt manifest themselves in various forms: be it a cloaked figure on the horizon or a mewling baby crawling out of a kitchen drawer.

It’s a fascinating, technical experience. Owen’s tight control over his visuals, no doubt stemming from his background in art direction and storyboarding, force you to sit up and pay attention.

These visuals include various genre tropes like crazy taxidermy, lingering close-ups of sheep eyes, dolly zooms and menacing waves of fog. Coupled with Callum Donalsdon’s striking, if occasionally overbearing score Shepherd conjures a sense of foreboding and dread.

Even the most “safe” moments (such as doing the dishes) shift and twist into something that drags you further and further towards the edge of your seat. Every tableaux has a purpose here, though sometimes their connection to one another is loose and remains unexplained. Pure dream logic.

A guilt so heavy…

Surreal as it is, Shepherd never strays into the shlock of an Evil Dead 2 (1987) style nightmare, where a man in a shed goes mad. This film is played straight. At times, too straight. Student film straight. A little bit of humour would have given some light relief and made the creepiness more creepy. Owen’s desire to be so piously solemn renders some of the performances in Shepherd unintentionally comical, as I break my own tension rather than have it broken for me by the film.

Both Eric’s unforgiving zealot of a mother (Greta Scacchi) and Kate Dickie’s Fisher (whose costuming is a neon sign blaring: “don’t trust me “) suffer from a detached delivery style which pulled me out of the moment.

This must have been a directorial choice as we have seen Dickie deliver performances with similar unnerving intent as she brings here, but with much more nuance. Her recent performance in David Lowery’s equally dream-like The Green Knight (2021) springs to mind. Here, her performance as Fisher renders her every word an accusation, delivered with zero subtly, so when we discover some secrets about her late in the film we greet it with a shrug rather than a gasp.

Shepherd 2021 Film Russell Owen
Shepherd starring Tom Hughes. Director: Russell Owen.

…a punishment endures

But it fits! This is a tale about Eric’s self-flagellation. Like Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004), Eric has been rendered inert by his grief and guilt so he has removed himself from society and Shepherd is a film that invites us to follow him into hell.

It, therefore, seems right that every person in this story speaks down to Eric. That everyone spits venom at him. Eric’s only solace comes from his sheepdog Baxter (giving the best eyebrow acting I’ve seen from a canine since Nick Park’s Gromit) but Eric often shouts at Baxter and cajoles into doing things he (sensibly) doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t deserve Baxter’s love. Or he doesn’t want it. Not truly. Not anymore. On a side note it is Baxter that provides one of the film’s creepier moments, staring at a door whilst Eric attempts to sleep.

Owen’s deft use of simple visuals along with some superb sound design all seek to create a film that is unconcerned with reality. A film that wants to push things, and us, to the edge. This is Eric’s mind we are in. And he hates himself; his sanity sloughing off of him as do the layers of his clothes.

Actor Tom Hughes Shepherd Movie
Actor Tom Hughes stars in Shepherd.

Wet, cold, lonely and confused

Everything is broken on Eric’s island. As is he. Houses are falling apart, phones don’t work, surfaces are wet and caked in filth. It is unsurprising, then, that Eric would seek to escape and when Eric does encounter places that are intact, they feel unnatural and hollow. Somehow worse than before.

This is because in Shepherd, running away from your troubles is not the answer. The grass is not always greener.

Shepherd isn’t a story of someone redeeming themselves via manly pursuits and simple purpose. This is the story of a man who should have reached out to a psychiatrist and stayed warm. Confronting his grief instead of burying his head in the sand. This is the story of a man condemning himself to a prison of his own making: Of guilt and of torment. Wet and alone and cold by the sea.

Check out Mark Kermode’s review of Shepherd (spoiler: it received the infamous ‘film of the week’).

3.5 out of 5 stars


Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams

Reviewer | Website

A screenwriter based in the North East of England. Loves producing slow-burning, thoughtful stories with an undercurrent of graphic violence.

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