Shepherds and Butchers Review

Shepherds and Butchers (2016) Movie Review By Stephen McLaughlin


Director: Oliver Schmitz
Writers: Chris Marnewick (novel),  Brian Cox (adaptation)
Stars: Andrea Riseborough,  Steve Coogan,  Garion Dowds

“Shepherds and Butchers” is a beautiful yet shocking film drama set in the apartheid era of South Africa that manages to be sensitive and brutal at the same time. Johan Webber (Coogan) and Kathleen Marais (Riseborough) go head to head in a trial of a young mentally broken prison guard, accused of a multiple murders to a football team of black players facing the death penalty if convicted.

The focus throughout the movie is centred around the courtroom with flash backs and intervals of Webber cross examining his own path and reasoning on why he is defending an accused who is almost certainly guilty of the terrible crime he is being tried for.

Webber’s angle throughout the movie is the accused Leon Labuschagne’s mental state being in close proximity of the inmates on death row and how this has effected his mind resulting in his actions that fateful night.

“Shepherds and Butchers” is a graphic and harrowing movie at times. The story is enthralling for the duration of the movie and really takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster as you begin to sympathise with the accused on how he went from School Prefect to appearing in Court for multiple murders in the space of a few years.

I’ve followed and been a fan of Steve Coogan since the early 1990’s. Having watched his career mostly in comedy and in particular, Alan Partridge the Norfolk DJ. I grew up watching the development of this character with other Coogan projects in between from The Day Today, Paul and Pauline Calf, Saxondale as well as his voice work in shows like Spitting Image.

So it wasn’t a surprise to me that Coogan at some point would try his hand at drama. Already having a film career that spans almost 20 years in his early work of The Parole Officer and 24 Hour Party People, it was refreshing to see him tackle something with a bit more bite. Already praised for his role as Martin Sixsmith in the 2013 Movie “Philomena” I was already to accept Steve Coogan the actor and not Steve Coogan “the comedy actor” that implies and pigeonholed him in small Hollywood roles which I felt was wasting good talent.

Steve Coogan throughout the movie is the star, who portrays Webber as at first reluctant, then intrigued and finally quite determined as the defence counsel to Labuschagne.

Equally as interesting is Garion Dowds portrayal of the accused and only 17 years old Leon Labuschagne. Dowds introduction as Leon is a convincing redundant young man who appears to have accepted his crime and is preparing himself for execution, something he knows well and has experienced working in that environment for a few years. Dowds surprisingly only has 3 acting credits to his curriculum vitae to date which stunned me when I read this information. Dowds comes across as an experienced actor for someone who is fairly young and his portrayal of Labuschagne is cold, sorry and convincing throughout.

As far as the photography and direction goes, Oliver Schmitz gives a 1980’s feel to the movie in what I can only imagine what living in South Africa during these times must have been. The photography is equally as impressive and beautiful to watch and the execution scene although are expected to be shocking still have shock value in what the victims experience but is balanced throughout those scenes on how it effected the guards who by order suffered physiologically and haunted by those moments and in particular the character of Leon Labuschagne.

The story resolves itself in a way that is more complex than these films usually allow themselves to be. At its climatic conclusion you will be left with mixed emotions that I haven’t felt since Kevin Bacon’s “The Woodsman” satisfied with the verdict? I’ll leave that for you to decide as I don’t want to spoil the ending. I will say that you will be left confused about your emotions and resolve.

“Shepherds and Butchers” is a terrific movie from start to finish from its direction and development of the characters and shot deliberately with a whole load of close ups to capture the reaction and emotions of the people in the courtroom which I believe the audience will experience too. I highly recommend this movie just for Coogan’s performance alone and admit that I will go back and watch this again at some point in the near future.

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