Shepherds and Butchers
Based on Chris Madnewick’s novel as well as true events, director Oliver Schmitz’ Shepherds and Butchers sets out to explore the emotional issues capital punishment can cause to the people tasked with carrying it out.
Set in 1987 South Africa the film follows the court case of a young prison officer named Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds). He is on trial for murder and the angle taken is that the stresses of his job forced him to snap and commit this awful acts.
At least that’s the stance that his lawyer Johan Webber takes when trying to defend him. The film is very procedural in its approach with almost everything including any characterisation relating to the case.
It’s a good approach to take since it allows Leon’s character to be explored in very intimate ways. Lots of weight is put behind how young he is and him being essentially forced to take the first job he could find in order to avoid compulsory military service.
The narrative flows through the case with flashbacks depicting the brutal nature of Leon’s job. He is seen looking after the prisoners in their final days before leading them into a room for them to be hanged for whatever crime they committed.
This is accompanied with lots of brutal sound and imagery as the trap door booms before the harsh sound of the neck breaking happens. It even goes as far to show the bowels of the newly dead prisoners being voided in the moments after death. It is definitely not to be watched by the more squeamish among us and that unfortunately includes me.
In terms of putting the argument across these harsh sounds and visuals do that really well. It is entirely convincing that Leon had to endure an obscene amount of stress in his day to day working life and it’s easy to see how that would break someone. Again, remember that he is a very young man who perhaps isn’t mentally prepared for this.
Garion Dowds is a great choice for this role as he successfully conveys a young man who has been all but broken by his experiences and certainly seems to be in a state of shock after committing all of those murders. In the flashbacks he is very good at conveying how troubling this all is to him and it helps create sympathy for him and his situation.
Steve Coogan is also great as his lawyer despite his wavering South African accent. He conducts himself with passion and implied integrity as well as a great deal of reluctance and quiet self doubt. Many of his scenes involve him arguing the case but there are moments of quiet reflection that are very powerful. I like how he was attempting to be emotionally detached but never manages to do so.
Arguing the other side is Andrea Riseborough’s Kathleen Marais. Riseborough does a great job in the role with a flawless South African accent and a lot of integrity to her performance. The respecful adversarial relationship she has with Coogan’s Weber. They have many fascinating discussions that make very valid points about the issues.
There are some elements of the film that don’t quite work such as any scene that doesn’t directly deal with the case. There are attempts to flesh out Weber’s personal life outside of his career but it doesn’t quite work. It’s difficult to empathise when these scenes feature a group of rich white men discussing these things at the country club considering the issues of race and mistreatment that fill the rest of the narrative.
A powerful film with excellent performances from the actors. The complex case is handled with exceptional care and both sides of the argument are fleshed out. Any scene not related to the case doesn’t feel necessary but other than that it’s a thought provoking experience.
- powerful performances
- sophisticated and well thought out arguments
- scenes not related to the case feeling a little unnecessary