By Adam Ray Palmer
I chose this film on a whim to be honest. This is very reminiscent of my experience with Room at the London Film Festival.
Black Mass was screening at the same time and I had watched that a month before in Venice - so Room became a random choice. It also became one of the best decisions I had made in a long while of cinema-going.
Shepherds and Butchers is a similar tale - I had free time and I love Steve Coogan so I thought ‘why not?’ And now, I am so glad I went…
Shepherds and Butchers follows a jaded lawyer, John Weber (Steve Coogan), who takes on a seemingly hopeless multiple murder case and uncovers scandalous shortcomings in South Africa's capital punishment system as he mounts a defence case for a prison guard who has been traumatised by the executions he took part in.
Coogan anchors ‘S&B’ alongside another Brit, Andrea Riseborough, as she fills the leading lady spot. However, it’s the final lead that will take most the plaudits. Garion Dowds, a South African actor, helms what is his first ever feature. Dowds surprisingly oozes what seems experience and confidence as he delivers such a complex role so maturely.
Garion plays Leon Labuschagne, a prison guard who is being charged with the murders of seven people. His performance is intense and so impressive for a first-timer. His character’s case is clear-cut and utterly inscrutable: Labuschagne himself admits all evidence points to him having killed the strangers after their vehicles crossed paths on a rain-lashed evening, though he can neither remember the crime nor conceive doing it. Enter Mr. Coogan…
Steve Coogan plays his representative constructing his defence detailing that stress and the traumatic day job Leon had made him crack. Riseborough plays the opposing representative and believes she has a simple conviction – here ensues a difficult and uneasy film to endure.
Oliver Schmitz directs this film like a courtroom drama as to be fair, it is. However, he also adds another dimension by showing the audience an on-screen walkthrough to how Leon reached his position in the dock. This is where the uneasy viewing commences.
At first, about half an hour into the film when the flashbacks begin via Leon’s memory, they are difficult to watch. The gallows walk with the urine-stained, fearful prisoners is hard to take; but I completely understand Schmitz’s decision to include graphic and emotional scenes like this. These sequences shock the viewers, and ultimately throws Leon a lifeline with the audience. We see his day-to-day role at the prison and it is far from pleasant.
This is where Dowd’s haunting performance comes to the forefront. Garion is tackling an enormously powerful film and he delivers exceptionally. Coogan’s supportive role is surprisingly good too, this is a much more serious role to what he is use to yet seems unfazed by it. There isn’t a whiff of Alan Partridge anywhere.
Along with Dowd’s performance, the money maker is in the screenplay and directing. The unshakable scenes will stay in your mind for hours. You feel every bit of the gruelling and emotional turmoil that Leon is put through when he must clean and dispose of the inmates’ bodies. Oliver delivers one of the best pictures in his career and perhaps this will be like a hidden gem at the Berlinale.
Cineroom’s Rating: 5 Stars
Shepherds and Butchers is yet to distribute rights around the world.