At first glance, Chris Faulisi’s 1980’s-set dramatic thriller The Shade Shepherd may seem like it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. However, upon closer inspection, its twist ending leads to more questions than answers – and certainly doesn’t justify the monotonous 90-or-so minutes preceding it. Faulisi is a capable director, his skill at building suspense intermittently evident – the fault lies in his and Jordon Hodges’ (also the star) script, so eager to get to its redemptive point, it forgets to flesh out its characters or its presumably “riveting” sequences. As a result, we’re left scratching our heads: its “adventures” are meager, and the presentation of it’s otherwise-laudable moral is laughable.
The year is 1987. Jack (Hodges) is a psychiatrist who lives with his pregnant wife Stacey (Caroline Newton) in wealthy Indiana suburbia, shooting off arrows in his backyard to exorcize demons. “I understand people’s mistakes,” he tells Stacey desperately, “but I can’t fix them. Look at Pike, my own f*****g brother.” Said Pike (Randy Spence) happens to be a hopeless crackhead, huffing, and puffing in his mashed-up trailer. Before Stacey knows it, her husband’s gone on a mission to help his brother escape a murder charge, leaving her with nothing but a vague note that in no way rationalizes his abhorrent behavior.
“…her husband’s gone on a mission to help his brother escape a murder charge, leaving her with nothing but a vague note…”
The brothers go for the Canadian border, narrowly escaping authorities, Pike experiencing maniacal withdrawals along the way. They raft down a river, camp out, hunt squirrels, stumble on an empty house stacked with canned beans, hotwire a car, steal a truck, lose their map, bond over baseball in a dilapidated shack, and bond some more in a closed-off bowling alley. Minor spoiler alert: the story sort of ends where it started, the entire “adventure” an elaborate ploy – so elaborate, in fact, it’s altogether nonsensical, especially considering the timing, with Stacey’s pregnancy and all.
I assume Hodges and Faulisi set their film in the 1980s for the following reasons: there were no cell-phones (or any of the current advanced tech, like drones), rendering our heroes’ quest plausible; throwback entertainment is still “in” these days, with Stranger Things’ next season looming large on the horizon; it gave composer Jonny Mendez the freedom to go nuts with his synth score and, whoever designed the opening credits, the freedom to go nuts with neon. Otherwise, The Shade Shepherd could’ve easily been set in the present-day, the dilemma of crack addiction more relevant than ever.
“Our investment in their quest is consequently mild at best…”
Faulisi – who also (impressively) edited and shot this film – may touch upon the theme of how the rise of this terrible epidemic occurred in the U.S. in the 1980s, but his focus on sibling bonding and loyalty overshadows all other semblances of topicality. Too bad there’s not much there either, the brothers’ relationship while exhibiting some chemistry, amounting to random exchanges of pseudo-profound quips like, “Sometimes you do things you don’t wanna do… because you have to.” Sure, they reminisce about their past over a lousy game of baseball, but those stabs at poignancy are far and few between.
What’s worse, it’s as difficult to justify Jack’s sudden departure and abandonment of his expecting wife as it is to root for Pike, a downtrodden crackhead with a penchant for psychotic seizures. Our investment in their quest is consequently mild at best – and when said journey is so repetitive (another slog through the forest, another abandoned building, etc.), little else is left. “Man, you ain’t shootin’ s**t,” Pike tells his bow-and-arrow-wielding brother, in my mind echoing the taunts of Faulisi’s detractors. Just like Jack, the filmmaker comes back with a somewhat-chewable squirrel – and the faint promise of bigger game ahead.
The Shade Shepherd (2019) Directed by Chris Faulisi. Written by Chris Faulisi and Jordon Hodges. Starring Jordon Hodges, Randy Spence, Caroline Newton, Brett Baker. The Shade Shepherd screened at the 2019 Newport Beach Film Festival.
5 out of 10