Review of the week
Film: Shepherds and Butchers
Cast: Garion Dowds, Steve Coogan, Andrea Riseborough, Deon Lotz
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Reviewer: Peter Feldman
‘Shepherds and Butchers’ is a riveting South African film that lifts the stakes in a highly competitive local market and demonstrates what can be achieved when all the components fall nicely into place.
Director Oliver Schmitz has taken a sensitive and somewhat controversial subject and transformed it into a production that begs many questions regarding the South African judicial system.
It focuses on capital punishment – the death sentence – and in the space of 80 or so minutes brings home the brutal reality of death by hanging, the state of affairs that existed during the apartheid regime when hundreds of death row prisoners’ lives were ended by dangling at the end of a rope.
‘Shepherds and Butchers’ is not for the fainthearted, because it takes viewers on a cautionary journey that will jolt the psyche and leave you with stark images long after the film has dimmed from the screen. Even now, weeks after having seen the film at a preview, I vividly recall Schmitz’s graphically violent scenes played out in the confines of Pretoria prison where hangings took place.
The central character is Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), a young and impressionable prison guard. In the opening sequences we watch him gun down seven black men in a mini-bus. Their crime was that the vehicle had overtaken him during a heavy downpour and he had lost his temper, which prompted him to engage in a shooting spree. It was cold-blooded murder. However, was there something far deeper in his psychological make-up that unhinged him at that moment?
Labuschagne, a baby-faced, inexperienced guard, is brought to trial – but refuses to co-operate with the British-born lawyer, Johan Webber (Steve Googan), who has been assigned to his case. Webber simply cannot pry loose Labuschange’s mind and it’s only once the court case gets underway, where the youngster is being charged with murder, that the true drama unfolds.
His actions, Webber argues to the court, were the direct result of psychological trauma emanating from his volatile work environment, where he had to deal with death row prisoners on a daily basis.
Warrant Officer Rautenbach (Deon Lotz), his stern, no-nonsense boss, assigned him to look after the prisoners and when their time came, leading them to the gallows. It was a harrowing experience to simply try to get through each day, knowing full well that the person you were looking after would soon be dead.
The death row scenes are particularly traumatic (done in flashbacks) and Schmitz certainly goes overboard in ramming home the point about pain and suffering.
The court case is also brilliantly executed as the relentless Webber peels away the layers to reveal his client’s inner turmoil.
Dowds (a real find here) and UK actor Steve Coogan, best known perhaps for his more comic roles, are both superb and give the film its edge.
Another import, Andrea Riseborough, as prosecutor Kathleen Murray, doesn’t have much of an impact and one would question her casting. A local actress would have been better, especially in the accent department.
‘Shepherds and Butchers’ is a well-crafted, thought-provoking argument against the application of corporal punishment in today’s society. There is another school of thought however, that states by re-instituting it (it was stopped when the ANC came to power) it would lower the crime rate and act as a deterrent.
The jury may still be out on this contentious issue, but one thing is abundantly clear – Oliver Schmitz’s production will stun the senses.
Other releases (synopsis)
FILM: KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
CAST: ZACH GALIFIANAKIS, JON HAMM, ISLA FISHER, GAL GADOT
DIRECTOR: GREG MOTTOLA
A suburban couple becomes embroiled in an international espionage plot when they discover that their seemingly perfect new neighbours are government spies.
Screenwriter Michael LeSieur found inspiration from some friends’ idyllic lives in a suburban cul-de-sac-a street closed at one end. “It was similar to the one in ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses’, and my friends could not have been happier living there,” says LeSieur. “It was like they had discovered paradise. It’s so endearing and funny that people could find that much happiness in something that simple.”
LeSieur was also intrigued by husband-and-wife super-spies, such as those depicted in films like ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, and by a married duo he envisioned living across the street from such a stealthy couple.
“I kept wondering, what this average husband-and-wife would think about all the craziness going on in the spies’ house. There’s a whole other movie going on from the neighbours’ perspective. I started thinking about that and combining it with some aspects of the lives of my friends living on their beloved cul-de-sac.”
Director Greg Mottola, whose previous films include the hit comedy ‘Superbad’ and the critically-hailed ‘Adventureland’, also sparked to that juxtaposition, while noting that LeSieur’s screenplay brought to mind Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 comedy ‘The Apartment’ and the 1945 romantic drama ‘Brief Encounter’ from David Lean. As Mottola explains, “Wilder co-wrote ‘The Apartment’ after seeing ‘Brief Encounter’, which depicts a love affair between a married woman and a married man, and whose liaisons take place in a friend’s apartment. Wilder saw that movie and wondered about the guy who lends his apartment to people having illicit affairs. I thought that was a fun way to tell a story.”
Mottola credits LeSieur’s style and approach as another major draw. “I like Mike’s writing a lot. He tends not to create just jokes and one-liners; Mike writes real characters and has a dry and sometimes absurd sense of humour. ‘Keeping Up With The Joneses’ has its own distinctive character. It felt like a comedy/character movie disguised as a high-concept idea, and that’s the kind of story I love most.”
FILM: THE ACCOUNTANT
CAST: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons and John Lithgow
DIRECTOR: Gavin O’Connor
Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a math savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind the cover of a small-town CPA office, he works as a freelance accountant for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations.
With the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons), starting to close in, Christian takes on a legitimate client: a state-of-the-art robotics company where an accounting clerk (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy involving millions of dollars. But as Christian uncooks the books and gets closer to the truth, it is the body count that starts to rise.