Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

dir-scr Russell Owen
prd Aslam Parvez, Karim Prince Tshibangu
with Tom Hughes, Kate Dickie, Greta Scacchi, Gaia Weiss, Jamie Marie Leary
release UK 12.Nov.21
21/UK 1h43

hughes dickie scacchi
london film fest

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hughes with baxter
This British horror thriller is so atmospheric that it's almost overwhelming. The sound mix alone is ceaselessly jarring, with added unsettling imagery and a story that plays on some deep emotional issues. So it's more than a little frustrating that writer-director Russell Owen keeps the scary stuff on the surface, rather than mining the complex underlying themes. Still, it looks and sounds amazing, and features superbly evocative performances.
Grieving the loss of his wife (Weiss in flashbacks), whose body was lost at sea, Eric (Hughes) just needs to get away from it all. He heads to the isolated farm where his grumpy mother (Scacchi) lives, and she tells him he has no place there. So he takes a job as a shepherd on an isolated western island, ferried across the sea with his faithful dog Baxter by the crotchety Fisher (Dickie), who makes several ominous pronouncements. But this island seems to have its own ghosts, and Eric certainly isn't getting any peace here.
Carefully designed to keep the audience off-balance, every setting is weather-beaten to within an inch of its life, including the crumbling cottage Eric occupies near a mostly non-working lighthouse next to an ever-churning sea on an island covered in mist and perplexed sheep. All of this is accompanied by deafening sounds of wind, waves, creaking buildings and an ominous ringing bell, plus a riotously discordant musical score. Meanwhile, scenes include dreams, visions and bonkers supernatural incidents that force Eric to face his truth.

Through all of this, Hughes maintains a delicate edge in his performance, even as he fully commits to the most over-the-top freakiness. He makes Eric a sympathetic character with an emotional journey that is thoroughly involving. He also helps overcome some naggingly incongruent plotting (such as his magical food and lamp oil supply) simply by remaining so grounded in the role. Meanwhile, Dickie chomps merrily on the scenery as the taxidermy-mad boat captain who clearly knows more than she lets on. And a remarkably glammed-down Scacchi lends the film some gravitas in a couple of pungent scenes.

Because the film's style is so dense and engulfing, it feels like there should be a lot in it. But the themes are relatively simple, including a few revelations and twists in the final act. The idea that Eric has imprisoned himself due to his feelings of guilt is a provocative one that generates intrigue but is never taken any further. And little glimpses of deeper emotional traumas are also brushed aside in lieu of a more horror-style resolution. The film leaves us feeling jumpy, but not particularly shaken.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 24.Sep.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall