Shepherd opens with a quote from Dante’s Inferno, the classic epic poem about a journey through Hell. Which rather gives away the game of Welsh writer-director Russell Owen’s third feature film, an elegantly gloomy but ultimately unsatisfying slice of gothic rural horror.
Stricken with grief over the death of his wife, Eric Black (Tom Hughes: Infinite, Red Joan) takes a job looking after a flock of sheep on a remote and otherwise deserted Scottish island, accompanied only by his dog, Baxter. The place is an absolute creepshow: the rundown cottage is dusty, rickety, and festooned with animal-head trophies; the lighthouse nearby doesn’t light up anymore but tolls a compensatory bell in the fog (who is ringing the bell?); and the standing stones on the island are covered with strange runes. Baxter, wisely, is ready to leave immediately, but Eric has some serious moping to do, and this place is perfect for torturing himself.
Yes, this is yet another movie about a man experiencing all the feels because a woman (Gaia Weiss [Overdrive, The Legend of Hercules] in brief, sometimes nightmarish flashbacks) went and died on him, but Eric is also haunted — literally as well as figuratively — by his awful, nasty mother (Greta Scacchi [The White King, Flightplan], terrific here as always). So he’s got two women driving him to insanity. Three if you count Kate Dickie (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Prevenge) as the crusty and mysterious sea captain who ferries Eric to the island. (She is *chef’s kiss*, best thing in the movie.) His mental disquiet manifests in ways that Owen depicts with often effectively spooky imagery, some not like anything I’ve seen before onscreen: twisted visions of birds and babies (his wife was pregnant, natch) abound.
But visual panache isn’t enough. Shepherd is all mood, and a too-static one. Hughes makes a valiant go of Eric’s descent into madness — or is it a descent into Hell itself? — but the character is little more than his misery. No wonder even the sheep don’t seem to want much to do with him.