Tuesday 2 March 2021

Movie Review: Shepherds And Butchers (2016)

A prison and courtroom drama, Shepherds And Butchers condemns capital punishment, but makes the same point early and often. 

South Africa, 1987. On a deserted road, maximum security prison warden Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) shoots dead seven members of a football team. He is arrested and does not deny the multiple murder charges. Anti-death penalty lawyer John Weber (Steve Coogan) is appointed as his defence attorney, with Kathleen Marais (Andrea Riseborough) prosecuting.

With the facts not in dispute but no explicable motive, Weber focusses his defence on Leon's broken mental state. As a young prison guard, he participated in numerous prisoner executions over two years. The harrowing hangings, often of seven prisoners at a time, included men who Leon had befriended. In the court proceedings, Weber places the defendant on the stand to extract excruciating details, and attempts to blame the uncaring system for triggering irrational murderous impulses.

A South African co-production inspired by real events, Shepherds And Butchers sidesteps the racism issues of the apartheid era, despite all seven victims of Leon's rampage being Black. Instead, writer and director Oliver Schmitz unapologetically takes aim at the horrors of a badly mismanaged prison system and a culture of routine mass executions sanctioned by the state.

While movies like The Green Mile and Dead Man Walking closely examine the mechanics and moralities of capital punishment, Shepherds And Butchers goes much further: the execution scenes as recounted from the courtroom witness stand are brutal and difficult to stomach. Schmitz spares no detail, from the panic descending on the inmates to the snapping of necks, the subsequent clean-up of fluids and the slipshod burials. This is court-approved murder en masse, and the film firmly makes a stand against killing as punishment for killing.

But while undoubtedly powerful and provocative, the drama is also monotonal. Through John Weber's principled stance, the defence tactic to establish execution horrors as a trigger for Leon's quiet madness is established early. Schmitz invests the rest of the time exposing a deeper hell hole, the courtroom judge providing Weber with plenty of leeway to delve into minutia, the prosecutor remarkably acquiescent. The re-emphasis is perhaps appropriate for a robust defence, but the narrative momentum stalls early then yields to mounting repugnance.

The courtroom scenes are elegant and present a cultured debate and discovery environment. With Leon having refused to talk before testifying, Weber adopts a rare flying blind strategy, unsure where the defendant's answers will go but pursuing his instincts to reveal the damage suffered by a seventeen year old thrown into a gory milieu with no training or support. Resolute and virtuous, Shepherds And Butchers is also blunt and brutal.

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