Steve Coogan may well be best known for his comedic beginnings and his recurring reincarnations as television and radio presenter Alan Partridge, but from more recent roles, in particular his part in Oscar nominated film Philomena, we now know he can do serious seriously well. In courtroom-drama Shepherds and Butchers, written and directed by Oliver Schmitz, he plays compassionate defence lawyer Johan Webber. When seven black men are callously shot and killed by 17-year-old prison guard Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds), Webber is given the impossible task of defending him at the trial. Set in 1987 South Africa, he is pitted against prosecutor Kathleen Murray (Andrea Riseborough), who argues that Leon should be sentenced to death. An intelligently told story unfolds, exploring and dissecting the conflicting views on capital punishment; a system which was abolished just eight years later.
Early on in the proceedings, it transpires that the perpetrator wasn’t just a prison guard but also a hangman, and that executing a record-breaking number of men in one year had traumatised him into taking the lives of the aforementioned victims. Flashbacks are used effectively and powerfully as he is asked to retell the harrowing events of his occupation, in order to give context and reasoning to the heinous murders carried out afterwards. Dowds is terrific, and portrays a vulnerability and naivety that re-humanises a killer who seems inhumane from the bloodied slaughter scene at the beginning of the film. However, it is Coogan who undoubtedly anchors the performance-driven narrative. His passionate and energetic performance never wavers even when the pacing struggles, as the court battle becomes more of a sluggish slog than a slobberknocker occasionally.
The director Schmitz previously tackled the flawed history of his home nation with his critically acclaimed Apartheid gangster film Mapantsula, and clearly has talent for bringing wide issues to the big screen in a microcosmic, meaningful way. Shepherds and Butchers is an engaging and important watch that sheds light on very dark and challenging subject matter. Thanks to a clever and probing script and strong central turns from Coogan, Riseborough and newcomer Dowds, the film is executed with emotional impact.