This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here.
A dark tale of ghostly grief set in rural Ireland, Shepherd calls upon elements of its horror contemporaries to create a uniquely intricate film that will chill you to the bone.
Tom Hughes has already made his talented abilities as an actor clear in his appearance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria. But we see him truly find his stride as the protagonist in Russell Owen’s striking horror film, Shepherd. Eric Black, a widower going through the fresh grief of losing his pregnant wife Rachel (played by Gaia Weiss), moves to the west coast of Ireland for quiet and solitude. Taking up the post of a shepherd, isolation proves to be the last thing that Eric wants. Estranged from his mother (Greta Scacchi), Eric has only his dog and the downright creepy fisher (Katie Dickie) to talk to and confide in about the horrors that take place on the lonely pastures of rural Ireland.
“Are you escaping or running away, Mr. Black?”, the fisher asks in a sinister tone. This film is a wild tempest of guilt and grief that is very fitting within our current cinematic landscape. Without borrowing too much from elsewhere, the most striking horror films of the last decade have certainly made their mark on Shepherd. The physical isolation that we saw in The Lighthouse and the psychological manifestations of guilt and grief we have seen in 1922 and The Babadook are all present here. Even Hughes’ performance of a sinister type of bereavement reminded one of the seductive power of the one ring from The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the shocking power his guilt had over him. These little Easter eggs were, of course, borrowing from other landmark films and were not just superficial afterthoughts.
This is what makes Shepherd work. It is not a particularly cutting or original exploration of the horror genre. The manifestation of the protagonist’s deepest internal conflicts through supernatural torment is nothing new. However, it is in the production (Karim Prince Tshibangu) of the film and the exceptional acting that sets it apart as an excellent film in its own right. The fact that the premise of the film is clearly inspired by other groundbreaking films does not subtract from its brilliance. The cinematography alone (Richard Stoppard) makes a harrowing film set in the rugged Irish countryside visually harmonious and beautiful. Just considering aesthetics, it was a gorgeous film.
Hughes’ largely solo performance was a painfully grounded expression of Eric Black’s inner turmoil. One minute, he is screaming at the mysterious feminine figure that looms around his isolated cottage, and then he is laughing at his own folly the next. Black is stuck between a rock and a hard place as he processes the death of his wife while also attempting to reconcile this with his mother’s seething hatred and resentment for her. Katie Dickie’s performance as the eerie fisher that torments Eric Black is absolutely merciless. She coldly refuses to answer questions to which Black already knows the answers and her vengefulness shows itself in unexpected ways.
I appreciated the complexity of the husband-wife dynamic. The ‘dead wife flashback’ montage is now a trope that is routinely ridiculed by teenagers on Tik Tok and this is a justified disdain. The dead wife is often shown to be a perfect woman that can never be replaced, without any human nuance or complexity (this character is often a buttress for the living husband, rather than a fully fleshed-out character).
This isn’t what happened in Shepherd. Rachel Black is idealised for most of the film: she runs blithely towards the sea, wistfully turning to gaze lovingly at her husband with a beaming smile. But when the true dynamic of the relationship is made clear, this idolisation serves a more ominous purpose than mere grief. The need to airbrush Rachel Black’s character becomes apparent when we discover the nature of her death and the part that her husband had to play in it. Placing his wife on a pedestal actually illuminates the mental instability of Eric Black, rather than lazily making her perfect. Russell Owen subverted a trope that was inevitably becoming fodder for adolescent ridicule.
The showing of Shepherd at the London Film Festival should be a testament to its complexity. Russell Owens has directed a film that is considered, layered, and avoids all of the trope traps that were laid out before it. One can only hope that Owens has started on his cinematic endeavours as he means to continue.
Words by Elizabeth Sorrell
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