We’ve seen the despairing trudge to the execution chamber in many an anti-death-penalty drama; the significantly messier way in which bodies leave the space, on the other hand, is less vividly built into our consciousness. For crafting a rare, disorienting perspective on capital punishment — through the eyes of a teenage guard tasked with every feces-streaked stage of the inhuman process — South African helmer Oliver Schmitz’s apartheid-era procedural “Shepherds and Butchers” deserves considerable credit. Less fresh or persuasive is the inelegant courtroom drama framing the boy’s trauma, though the roles it affords for Steve Coogan and an excellent Andrea Riseborough as ethically sparring lawyers will bring a modicum of international attention to this sincere, still-seething snapshot of a thankfully defunct national administration.
It’s been 20 years since South Africa, then in the first flush of Nelson Mandela’s democratically elected presidency, formally abolished the death penalty that his predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, had suspended in 1989. Around the same time, the country’s landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission was assembled: a cathartic forum for, among other testimonies, the admission of atrocities committed in the National Party’s name during the apartheid years, many of them committed within the country’s corrupt prison system. Set in 1987 and adapted from a fact-rooted novel by lawyer Chris Marnewick, “Shepherds and Butchers” plays somewhat like a fictionalized file of TRC evidence — even two decades later, the film hasn’t arrived too late for a country still processing the veiled crimes of its darkest years, and certainly not for international territories (notably the U.S.) where the capital punishment debate rages on.
For Schmitz, whose first feature this is since 2010’s strong, Oscar-shortlisted AIDS drama “Life, Above All,” “Shepherds and Butchers” reps his first foray into cinema of direct political rhetoric — having previously filtered social rage against the authorities through the street-level narratives of 1988’s era-defining “Mapantsula” and its post-apartheid bookend, “Hijack Stories” (2000). If the new fit doesn’t seem an entirely natural one, that may have something to do with it being his first collaboration with South African super-producer Anant Singh, a veteran of such polished, commercially minded prestige pics as 1995’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” and 2013’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”
From its international star casting to its gloopy closing-credits ballad — pairing South African folk legend Vusi Mahlasela with, of all people, the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb — “Shepherds and Butchers” has Singh’s calculated touch all over it. Less outwardly prominent is Schmitz’s earthy, keen-eared brand of social realism, though it survives in the pic’s hardest, most evocative incidental details: the puddles of urine collecting at feet of dead men walking, for example, or the plaintive protest song of grief-riven black mothers outside the Cape Town courtroom where 19-year-old former warder Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds, quite superb) is being tried for the murder of their seven sons. The case is at once clear-cut and utterly inscrutable: Labuschagne himself admits all evidence points to him having gunned down the strangers after their vehicles crossed paths on a rain-lashed evening, though he can neither remember the crime nor conceive of any motive for it.
Hawkish prosecutor Kathleen Marais (Riseborough) smells an easy conviction, one that would send Labuschagne to the gallows where he himself has watched 164 men die in his two years of conscription-evading employment. After reluctantly taking on a seemingly unwinnable case, his British-born defense attorney John Weber (Coogan) has other ideas, questioning the scarring effect of Labuschagne’s profession — already arguably unsuitable for one his age — and its inherently unethical modes of condoned practice on his vulnerable psyche. How does working for a system that places such little value on human life skew one’s perception on that front? How clear is the dividing line between lawful and unlawful killing when the former becomes unremarkable procedure? On these lines is the fragile accused — whose tentative, peach-fuzz mustache only underlines his fundamental boyishness — cross-examined to exhausting effect, as his nervous testimony reveals the full-scale rot of a penal system panicking in the face of looming political change.
Dowds’ harrowed, haunted performance as a boy overwhelmed not just by the wolves to which he has been thrown, but the ones he claims have unconsciously emerged within him, gives the film its anxious emotional center. The flashbacks his testimony prompts to the everyday horrors of life on death row, meanwhile, constitute its most provocative, unshakeable material: A sequence during which he’s tasked with the ultimately unassisted burial of seven convicts takes on the galling, grotesque dimensions of near-Sisyphean comedy, minus any semblance of laughter. A character study linearly tracking his journey to the brink might have been quite something. Unfortunately, the time-hopping narrative framework of his case is marked by the gripping but melodramatically grandstanding law-and-order trappings of a less authentic film altogether, with Coogan’s angstily impassioned but sketchily back-storied defender a far less compelling choice of protagonist.
Counterintuitively cast in a role that calls for none of his signature raffish humor, Coogan puts in a creditable turn as the stock man of virtue against the crooked system, though he’s finally stymied by the script’s scant interest in Berger’s inner life or shadings of moral conflict. In the far less flattering but more psychologically crinkled role of the prosecutor who may or may not see the merit in her liberal opponent’s argument, Riseborough frankly outmatches her fellow Brit at every turn: Sporting one of the most casually impeccable Afrikaner accents ever nailed on screen by a non-native thesp, she embodies the impenetrably punitive nature of the political order she represents, but permits unvoiced questions and concessions even into her most coldly declamatory line readings. Dowds aside, local actors are limited to marginal roles in which they acquit themselves with dignity; Deon Lotz, the marvelous star of Oliver Hermanus’ “Beauty,” is teasingly dangled before auds in a near-silent cameo.
Tech credits are disappointingly televisual, not matching the lively, location-reflecting standard of Schmitz’s best work. Leah Striker’s digital lensing fosters a thematically crafty khaki-uniform palette for the interior-based prison sequences, but seems distractingly overlit elsewhere; musical cues veer between the atmospherically apposite and the brashly sentimental.