You don’t have to experience profound loss to know it’s debilitating. It sticks with you. No matter how you try to avoid it, the memories never fade. This is the reality of widower Eric Black (Tom Hughes) in Russell Owen’s sophomore feature, Shepherd. Touching on grief and guilt, and taking inspiration from Welsh ghost stories, Owen creates an engrossing experience that makes the audience feel they are going through every emotion that plagues the titular shepherd. He’s desperately searching for peace – but he may never find it.
“Such guilt so heavy a punishment endures.” The film quotes Dante’s Inferno in its opening frame, and the sound design that follows provides the sense that Eric is drowning in the pits of hell, so desperate to swim back up – like most with depression feel. He’s alone, living in a house in shambles, and the image of his wife’s empty coffin replays in his mind. He dreams of the memories he had to bury, but unfortunately, that’s not something literal. Her death follows him everywhere, like the Grim Reaper on his heels. We get a great sense of his mental state at this time, again through the film’s sound design, as it emphasizes even the smallest of sounds to indicate how disassociated he is from his surroundings. He seems to be in a constant dream-like state with what’s real and what’s not being difficult to identify. It’s perhaps Owen’s way of showing what loss does to the mind.
Then, Eric sees an ad in the paper for an island seeking a sole resident shepherd to take care of 600+ sheep. A man lost, he thinks he can find himself again in the comfort of solitude in a place where all reminders of his wife are gone. On his way to the island, his dog Baxter in tow, the fisher (Kate Dickie) asks him if he’s escaping or running. Perhaps, it’s both. This remote Scottish island doesn’t seem like one he would have hoped to escape to. It’s unwelcoming in the way it’s framed forebodingly, with Eric having to stay in a cottage full of cobwebs, ram heads and rickety stairs. All you can hear is the wind, which makes everything slam, creak and whistle. For an island supposedly thriving with hundreds of sheep, it feels desolate. When he finds old diaries of past shepherds, he learns that the island may have a haunted past of its own. A haunted man on a haunted island doesn’t mix.
An eeriness lingers over the film thanks to its cinematography. Shepherd's strong suit is how it excels at crafting a haunting atmosphere, and an often terrifying one, through its production and sound design. Eric’s visions, which escalate as the film goes on, are full of fantastic imagery, and while it’s hard to know at times if what is happening in the film is real, these scenes allow the audience to get into the mind of someone who’s suffocatingly weighed down by loss and the guilt he harbours because of his wife’s death. There’s a level of disorientation, too, that comes out as Eric experiences vertigo. The way this is shot as though a door is closing in on the audience or showing a floor moving in circles also helps the audience understand how this man is losing his mind. The island is made to feel like its own character. Everything seems so unnatural about it. From how the waters move to how the hills look. When the fog rolls in, it’s like an avalanche swallowing everything in its path. It’s ghostly, and the island is full of unpredictable spooks.
Many technical elements of the film are admirable, but it falls short a bit with its script. When the film ends, there are too many unanswered questions and the characters feel very one-note. We don’t learn anything about Eric apart from his loss. If there are other aspects touched on, like the relationship with his parents, they are very surface level. We learn nothing about his wife, Rachel (Gaia Weiss), who is solely defined by her death. One of the more intriguing characters of the film, the Fisher, is never given a backstory, either. She’s a mysterious figure who is alluded to being a witch, and who definitely knows more about the island’s dark past than she’s letting on, but we never see evidence of her being a witch (unless she’s involved in causing Eric’s visions but that isn’t explained) nor do we get a sense of her intentions. Dickie is good in the role, but it’s difficult to work with a blank slate. Hughes plays a broken man well, and his desperation to push all his feelings down, and how he eventually cracks, is very emotionally charged and affecting.
While Shepherd may feel somewhat unsatisfying with its unanswered questions and weak characters, it explores in an interesting way how loss has such a powerful control on us. Loss can feel like a prison, and the island here represents all of that in a stylish, supernatural horror package.
Movie Score: 3.5/5