Producers: Aslam Parvez and Karim Prince Tshibangu Director: Russell Owen Screenplay: Russell Owen Cast: Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Greta Scacchi, Gaia Weiss, Jamie Marie Leary and Shuggie Distributor: Saban Films
The percentage division of atmosphere to narrative in “Shepherd” may be something like ninety to ten, but the mood it creates is so overpowering that it’s creepily compelling. If what you demand is a conventional thriller that offers a succession of grisly frights on its way to a pat resolution, Russell Owen’s film may bore you to tears. But if you’re willing simply to be swallowed up in the world it fashions in images and sounds, you’ll find it an intoxicating oddity.
In genre terms, the film would be categorized as a horror movie, but certainly what’s now thought of as an elevated or artsy one. It has some shock moments, but creates tension largely through the beautiful but fearsome locale in which it’s mostly set (the majority of the shoot occurred on the isle of Mull in the Inner Herbrides, off the west coast of Scotland), the gorgeous but unsettling widescreeen images crafted by cinematographer Richard Stoddard, the incredible sound design, filled with howling gales, creaking timbers and the regular tolling of a bell, supervised by Edwin Matthews, and an unnervingly edgy score by Callum Donaldson.
It also features a subtly textured performance by Tom Hughes, who, under Owen’s unhurried direction (and the solemn editing by Jim Page and Christopher Thornton), keeps one riveted in what is, for long stretches, basically a one-man show. He plays Eric Black, a young man introduced as being in the depths of grief over the death of his pregnant wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss) in a terrible car crash on a winding mountain road. Tormented by dreams of her and flashbacks to the crash, nursing thoughts of suicide, he retreats to the home of his mother Glenys (Greta Scacchi, easily managing the character’s angry and, later, coolly malevolent sides), but she rebuffs him for having abandoned her and his father for a woman she implies was unfaithful to him.
Devastated, he takes a job as a shepherd on a rocky, desolate island, to which he’s delivered, along his dog Baxter (a likably laid-back canine called Shuggie), by a one-eyed boat woman named Fisher (grim, dour Kate Dickie), who hands him a journal to record his experiences, as well as the key to the dilapidated cottage that will be his home, a rickety place that creaks and buckles in the constant wind and has only intermittent running water and phone service, cryptically wishing him luck. Across the field on the shore stands a non-functioning lighthouse, from which a bell sounds at irregular intervals.
In a touch reminiscent of “Vertigo,” Eric is subject to acrophobia, as is shown when he unsteadily mounts the rotting stairs to his second-story bedroom (a trip Baxter refuses to attempt). But that’s a practical problem quickly eclipsed by occurrences that seem unnatural. Coming down in the morning, he finds a cup of hot tea awaiting him. Going to get water from a nearby spring, he discovers in it the wedding ring he’d thrown into a lake back on the mainland. He spies a figure creeping into the locked lighthouse and scurrying away by boat. Baxter disappears into the fog, and a search yields no result. The next morning he finds Glenys genially making him breakfast before being transformed into a murderous creature—or is it only a dream? He finds journals scribbled by previous holders of his job, one writing of a witch, another including a terrifying drawing of Baxter. And wandering in search of the dog, he comes upon a beached ship, empty apart from some scuttling, barely glimpsed figure.
Unable to cope, Eric breaks into the lighthouse with a key he found on the derelict ship and turns on the light, attracting the attention of the surprised Fisher. But she doesn’t come to his rescue. Rushing back outside, he finds his sheep gutted and hung up on crossed wooden stakes, along with Baxter, and once back in the cottage he’s menaced by a robed figure that turns out to be Rachel. He tries to escape, setting her and the cottage ablaze, and attempts to swim out to Fisher’s ship, only to be dragged down by the ghost. But he somehow survives and is washed up on shore, where his limp body is found.
The film’s coda is foreshadowed in a caption that opens the film; it’s a verse drawn from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” specifically the “Inferno.” Perhaps something from the “Purgatorio” might have been more suitable—certainly some frustrated viewers will consider the movie itself purgatorial. A final turn that returns Fisher to the action might be a bit of a reach even for admirers of the picture.
Overall, though, this agreeably ominous, impeccably crafted tale of guilt and punishment will be chillingly unnerving—for viewers who aren’t impatient for the next jump scare.