A good courtroom drama will compel you through to the end: an examination of the crime itself, how it’s prosecuted and defended, a focus on the legal system. A great courtroom drama will do all this plus divide the audience on the issue being argued. This is most certainly true of the new South African, American and German co-production, Shepherds And Butchers, a film that only boasts two stars, usual comedic actor Steve Coogan and character actress Andrea Riseborough. The resulting film is something that tries to humanize a disturbing act of cold blooded murder and delves into the very psyche of a man’s desensitization to the very notion of death itself, all under the eye of a filmmaker that is a new storyteller I have never heard of, Oliver Schmitz.
Shepherds And Butchers opens with a young man named Leon Labuschagne shooting a van load of soccer fans in a rain filled quarry in a brutal and emotionless act. We learn afterward that Labuschagne, who is only nineteen years old, has been working at the local prison for awhile on the death row penitentiary. There he cares for the inmates and then helps hang them as well, doing massive damage to his young mind. Ironically, for his crime, Leon faces the death penalty and it’s up to his British lawyer who is outspokenly against the death penalty to prove that these situations at work led to his murder of seven innocent men. Could the fact that he is already responsible for the deaths of countless men by hanging make him numb to the notion of taking another’s life?
Shepherds And Butchers will bring out your bias on whether the death penalty should exist or not, with viable arguments on either side. No, nothing condones the point-blank killings of seven innocent men but Coogan’s character, barrister Johan Webber uses his client’s fractured mental state, given his age and the inability to move past these legal killings he must carry out weekly. On the other side, Kathleen Marais, Riseborough’s prosecutor character, seems to have an open and shut case with circumstance and evidence proving that Labuschagne killed the men without remorse or thought, making him an easy candidate for the hangman’s noose. Webber and his client’s only hope is to play on the sympathies of the courtroom and the judge.
Compelling through the arguments and well shot to boot, Schmitz makes a deeply informative film about the South African death penalty system, complete with a deep look into the day to day inside death row, as well as a pretty detailed account of a guards duties on execution day. How can the human psyche handle the emotional pressure of snuffing out a human life week in and week out. More harrowing, how does the progressive mind of a youth take this information in? In a great performance from young actor Garion Dowds, we are perched on the shoulder of a young career driven individual who committed an act he may not fully understand and sees his life hanging (no pun intended) in the balance. This is probably the top of the most compelling things in Shepherds And Butchers. 4/5