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Heathen (2009)
Director: Ross Shepherd

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There's low-budget filmmaking and then there's no-budget filmmaking. Heathen, the debut feature of director Ross Shepherd is undeniably of the latter. Filmed on weekends with minimal crew, actors working for free and a lot of goodwill, Heathen is a psychological thriller that belies its humble budgetary origins and manages to be (niggles aside) an interesting and worthwhile contribution to the growing renaissance in British genre filmmaking.

It is nearly a year since the disappearance of Will's (Tom Rudd) brother David. The pair parted on bad terms and Will has been slowly crushed by the weight of those angry words and the weight of the mystery surrounding his brother's disappearance. What happened to him? Is he dead? How did he die? As the film begins, we find Will a broken man prone to solitude and brooding. However, he is snapped out of his state of despair by the arrival of a glamorous French painter named Chloe (Amber Coombs).

Chloe claims to see something in Will and seduces him with an almost ruthless efficiency. For a while, things start to improve for Will but then he starts to see a strange man. Like a re-used extra in the film of his life, the man seems to be following Will and be forever about to say something to him. However, when Will tries to confront him or speak to him, the man disappears. When the anniversary of David's disappearance comes around, things start to get really strange as Will overhears a song on the radio that is ostensibly dedicated by him to his lost brother. He also receives a page from a calendar with the date of the disappearance circled and the ominous message that confession is good for the soul.

Interestingly, despite being shot in black and white, Heathen is not a particularly moody film. When one thinks of black-and-white psychological thrillers, one's mind is naturally drawn to the great works of film noir but Heathen is not set in a decaying house in the Hollywood hills or the fog-covered streets of San Francisco. Instead, it is set on the actually quite sunny streets of Brighton. Initially, this half-in, half-out usage of noir iconography is grating and feels artificial but as the film moves on, it becomes clear that the colour is not a reflection of the world the characters inhabit; rather it is a reflection of the psychological state of the main protagonist.

Will is trapped in the dark and is searching for the light. He can no longer see the colour and the nuances that surround him. Indeed, Will is an interesting character as Rudd plays him almost against the grain of the plot. As a man who lost his brother after parting on bad terms, one would expect Will to be filled with guilt and misery but, in truth; Rudd portrays him as a peppery and ill-tempered sod. A man who is not so much depressed as filled with a kind of rage that is rapidly turning sour for lack of an outlet. We see it in his dealings with his friends and colleagues as well as his tendency to lash out at his glamorous new girlfriend. Initially, this seems quite incongruous but as the film reaches its climax we learn that actually, Will's anger not only makes perfect sense but it is also what attracted Chloe to him in the first place.

Aside from the black and white, Heathen is filled with lovely little technical flourishes that show Shepherd to be a director intent upon placing his stylistic imprint on the film. For example, the opening shot is also the closing shot, the passage of time is marked by speeded up shots of traffic and flashbacks are signalled by a complicated graphical fade and muted sound. All of these little tricks and flourishes really add up and make for a film that is not only memorable but also quite idiosyncratic, which is an interesting strategy to take for a film with no budget, no stars and not much script.

Ah, the script... Where Heathen really struggles is at the level of its narrative. Narrative filmmaking works on the assumption that events that take place within a film are going to be linked by some relationship of cause and effect, action and counteraction, cue and response. Even in a film such as Heathen, where there is a mystery to be resolved, the assumption on the part of the audience is that events on screen will make some kind of sense. Even if the film does not necessarily spell things out, the assumption is that there is a hidden justification for what is going on and that this justification can be revealed by thought or the careful sifting of evidence.

Consider, for example, the UK ending of Neil Marshall's The Descent. We are shown the protagonist escaping from the cave only for her to wake up and find herself in a cave surrounded by monsters sitting opposite her dead daughter. These images make no obvious sense but, as an audience, we want the narrative to make sense and so we might assume that the protagonist has gone mad and that we are seeing her delusions. The same is true of the strange temporal loop that makes up the narrative of Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976). We see Polanski's character visiting a wounded woman at the beginning of the film and then we are shown the same scene again from the injured woman's perspective suggesting that Polanski's character has somehow become the woman in the bandages. The original novel upon which the film is based was a work of surrealist fiction and it is not supposed to make sense but, when we sit down in the cinema, we assume that we are looking in on a world that makes sense and so we interpret the film, not as a temporal loop, but as the story of a man who becomes obsessed with the previous tenant of his flat to the point where he starts believing he is her. The final scene of The Tenant is thus not a depiction of the truth, but of the character's deluded mind.

Heathen's big climax explains the strange goings on in Will's life but it does so by invoking happenstance and accident in stead of cause and effect. That which we are lead to believe is meaningful is revealed to be random and that which we thought was random is revealed to be intentional (though even in intentional matters, there are still holes and a lack of credibility, the unfortunate result of having to cram all the film's exposition into one scene).

Now, it could well be that this bait-and-switch is part of the point that Shepherd is trying to get across. Perhaps he is trying to make a point about our refusal to accept the power of blind chance in our lives and our tendency to want unfortunate and distressing events to happen for some kind of reason (whether metaphysical or conspiratorial). But if this is the point that Shepherd is trying to get across then he has a strange way of doing it as the final denouement does reveal a kind of conspiracy, only not the one we were lead to believe might be in place. This makes for a conclusion that is frustrating where it should be satisfying and irritating where it should be revelatory.

The Heathen DVD comes with a load of extras including deleted scenes, blooper reels, audition tapes, commentary tracks, short films and making of documentaries. It also has an interview of Shepherd conducted by low-budget film making guru Chris Jones, as well as a booklet containing condensed extracts from Jones' books The Guerrilla Filmmakers Handbook, and the Guerrilla Filmmakers Pocketbook. Regrettably, none of these great-sounding extras were included on the review copy I received so I can't tell you if they're any good but combine good extras with a fundamentally decent and visually impressive film and you have a DVD well worth checking out.


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