Shepherd review – isolation horror of sheep-herder on Scottish island

Scything strings, ticking clocks and a lighthouse bell tolling make for an atmospheric if OTT drama

“Something’s haunting you, Mr Black. I can see it. Hope you get the chance to confront it.” With this utterance coming from Kate Dickie, playing a one-eyed ferry operator who keeps a stuffed crow on her boat, you know that confrontation is a given. She’s just shipped Eric Black (Tom Hughes) and his collie Baxter across a menacing stretch of water to the prehistoric-looking Scottish island where a husk of a cottage and a job as resident shepherd await him. “Escaping or running?” she asks, but he dodges the question. What is left unsaid is that he has just buried his pregnant wife Rachel (Gaia Weiss), something his face – a study in pasty desolation – suggests he may have had a hand in.

Dickie’s goading suggests this might be framed as another self-consciously salty yarn along the lines of Robert Eggers’ 2019 film The Lighthouse, which, like Shepherd, was inspired by the Smalls lighthouse tragedy. But director Russell Owen’s less humorous brand of confinement horror takes a different tack. Eric corrals his sheep, starts glimpsing a jet-black revenant, and is transfixed by a sinister lighthouse prone to letting its fog-bell clank at dramatically emphatic moments; his isolation is reinforced largely through oppressive sound design. Said bell, dank reverb, creaking timbers, ticking clocks and a score heavy on the scything strings all combine into a psychological cacophony that feels like an Alfred Hitchcock migraine rattling around inside Hans Zimmer’s washing-machine drum.

It’s a shame that the relentless sonic assault tends to drown out the emotional impact when snippets of Eric and Rachel’s past are periodically shaken free. Keeping deliberately permeable barriers between his protagonist’s waking and dream lives, moreover, lets Owen off the hook for the film’s lack of narrative precision. He does, though, excel at atmosphere, both with the imposing geographic scale and the musty cragside close-ups; Hughes, meanwhile, sparely conveys Eric’s muted agony. In the end though, while a bit self-defeating, this attempt at a maximalist style is ultimately admirable.

• Shepherd is released in cinemas on 26 November.