The incongruities abound at the start of Russell Owen’s Shepherd to put us in a state of unease the moment we discover Eric Black’s (Tom Hughes) wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss) has died at sea, her body lost. He and those who knew her fill her coffin with memories and keepsakes instead, a pile of objects that appear contemporary in their appearance despite them now inhabiting an old-timey wooden planked box sealed shut with rough nails from a bygone era. Did my eyes deceive me? Were Rachel’s belongings not as modern as I assumed? Was Owen’s setting always a window into the past? If not for the alarm clock that wakes Eric, I might have believed it. With its presence, however, it seems this widower is caught completely out-of-time.
The car he drives to his mother’s (Greta Scacchi’s Glenys) home isn’t the newest or flashiest of models, but it proves we’re definitely not in the 1890s à la Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse—based upon the “Smalls Lighthouse” story, which is among the Welsh ghost stories Owen also used for inspiration. Aesthetic vacillates, anyway, if only because we’re dealing with farmers—Eric left his family’s land to start his life with Rachel, something his mother has never forgiven him for doing—and thus rural environments that don’t need the sort of amenities that would otherwise cement the year more clearly. It’s a great way to foster additional confusion as proceedings quickly devolve into the fracturing of a grieving, guilty mind. Eric has lost all stability.
As such, he decides to walk away from whatever life he had before Rachel’s death. Seeing an advertisement in the classifieds about a shepherding job on a remote island, he packs up his dog Baxter and heads towards what he hopes will be peace, quiet, and distraction. And perhaps that’s what would await prospective employees if they weren’t carrying the sort of heavy psychological burdens he has on his shoulders—if someone without them would consider taking a position such as this. Silence ultimately has a way of exacerbating these issues. A lack of external conversation inevitably breeds internal dialogue, the isolation conjuring hallucinations and nightmares. Or it could all be the product of witches and demons. Eric believes he deserves punishment, and they’d happily oblige.
Enter Kate Dickie’s Fisher, the lone ferryperson taking Eric across the water to his foggy, temporary home. One eye is milky white, her boat full of stuffed crows. And she speaks in riddles, wondering how Eric came to answer the ad less to discover the logistics of his reading it than his emotional state, as though that’s what “sent” it to him like a magnet. Yet no matter how creepily Owen and Dickie allow the character to become, even she won’t fully journey inwards onto the island. She stops short of a blackened line of earth as though crossing over would forever imprison her. Eric doesn’t notice—not that he’d believe some supernatural tale of evil. At least not before experiencing its presence for himself.
Don’t expect to see too many sheep: despite there apparently being six hundred to corral, Eric spends very little time doing actual work. He instead falls prey to fear—heights are a huge problem, even the fact that his room is on the second floor of his new house—and anxiety once dark fantasies bleed into the everyday. Did he see Fisher return unannounced to place something inside the locked lighthouse that no longer shines light? Did his mother somehow find out where he was and make her way across the water to cook him breakfast? Is the fog bringing Rachel back in differing states of decomposition? Is Eric losing his mind? Or did he lose it so early on that he never even left the mainland?
These are the usual types of questions we ask of any psychological horror thriller and yet the final two find themselves keeping us at arm’s length. This is intentional as Owen relays in his director’s statement that he very purposefully stripped his script back to “remove explanation” and “ensure a veil of mystery.” While a great notion in theory, that execution leaves something to be desired; a lack of delineation and/or mythological background renders the whole into a purgatorial stasis. Ratcheting up the conflict and confusion becomes counter-intuitive, the escalation of violence and brutality arriving without clear motive. I can’t even decide for myself what’s happening—there’s nothing but smoke to grab. Owen stripped away the film’s own agency.
So while he’s “left it to the viewer,” he’s left too much. We infer things like Fisher being the witch written about in a journal—that journal being Eric’s, despite him not remembering—or Fisher being Eric’s dark side, but to no real end; everything is too ambiguous to let us settle on one without the others bleeding through. It’s therefore everything at once. It is real. It is fake. It is metaphor. There’s a problem, however: when Owen does give some answers (like how Rachel died), we cannot believe they are true answers. The murky water in which he travels gets so opaque that concrete facts become debatable too. Its resulting visual and tonal intrigue, while effective, feels hollow juxtaposed against Hughes’ noteworthy performance.
Shepherd hits limited release on May 6 and VOD/Digital HD on May 10.