What if you had the opportunity to sit and speak with a loved one long gone? What would you say? Would there be anger and hostility for past transgressions or would there be absolute love and forgiveness for who they were at one point in your life and what they meant to you during the best of times?
There is a breathtaking moment in director Chris Faulisi’s new movie The Shade Shepherd (written by Faulisi and actor Jordon Hodges) where this very dilemma is cleverly addressed by ne’er-do-well Pike Ables when, a full hour into the proceedings, he wanders through his old childhood home and stumbles across the ghost of his father who vanished years earlier sitting contemplatively on the front porch reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. When he sees the man who he’s made into the veritably worst parent ever, Pike realizes he isn’t quite that at all; conversely, he’s not the best one either. He simply is: no more and no less, much like Pike himself with all of his own past mistakes and regrets. It’s a father and son “reunion” that will break your heart and heal it all at once and it is a true pivot for a character expertly played with subtle anguish and nuance by the actor called on to exorcise Pike Ables, journeyman actor Randy Spence.
The Shade Shepherd might just be the best movie you’ll see in 2019 that doesn’t feature a comic book superhero or a demonic possessed doll. It in fact features the deceptively simplest of plots: It’s 1987 and Jack, a well-meaning and loving psychiatrist (Jordon Hodges, also the co-writer of this film), attempts to help his drug addled older brother escape into Canada following a murder charge slapped against him after a bar fight that turns deadly.
Making this choice to leave everything behind in order to help his brother does not understandably sit well with Jack’s wife who we find quite pregnant as the story begins to unfold. Caroline Newton as Jack’s ever-suffering wife, Stacey, has what could potentially be a difficult role if left in the hands of a less capable actress. Newton makes you believe her confusion and loneliness though, and shines brightly with a level of empathy that is pronounced and compelling.
The story doesn’t waste too much time in getting the two brothers on the lam from law enforcement and establishing what is essentially a road movie with no real road; most of the trek to Canada and freedom is done through dense woods with nothing but an old map and a compass to guide them. A parallel trek is happening too, this one in the wounded psyche of two brothers who have forgotten how to talk with one another but not how to love. Complicating things is the fact that Pike is a drug addict going through a painful detox the further he goes into the woods. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope never had these sorts of problems in any of their Road films.
Jordon Hodges as Jack paints a strangely neutral and muted performance that seems on first viewing oddly one-note. I will not go into much detail in this review about that other than to say this: Hang in there. Not everything is as it may seem and Hodges pulls off a bit of acting that is one of the more accomplished of recent memory. As an actor and a writer he poses a double threat and he truly is a talent to keep an eye on.
Every Jack needs a Pike and Randy Spence is more than up to the task of adding layer after layer onto what has every right to be a stock character. Luckily, the writing of Faulisi and Hodges along with the chops of Spence will not allow for cliché and what we’re left with is one of the better performances by an actor in recent memory, at various points channeling levels only commonly achieved by such actors as Montgomery Clift and Christian Bale. Make no mistake this is a performance of raw power, humor and utmost pathos. If there is a Cinematic God and Justice, Randy Spence is a name you are going to be hearing a lot more of in the very near future.
The character actors of the piece are also noteworthy and there is not one single false note among a one of them. Particular attention should be given to Hollywood veteran actor Brett Baker, who has a wicked and fun turn as the boatman who might just provide Jack and Pike with salvation through exodus. Not for nothing is his character known as Styx (go ahead, Google it, I’ll wait…).
Director Chris Faulisi has delivered an outstanding piece of film that deserves recognition and with every frame you can see his heart and creativity shining through. As duly noted earlier, Faulisi co-wrote The Shade Shepherd which is impressive enough. One upping all of that (and making all of us look like utter pikers), he also provided the rich and lush cinematography of the movie that is a character in and of itself.
In recent days since viewing a screener of the film I’ve been excited about yet another character in the film, one I’m reluctant to extrapolate on for fear of giving too much away. This unheralded character goes by a variety of names, but for the sake of brevity let’s just call him Misdirect. This is a film that goes off into some very unexpected directions, yet the bottom holds the structure of the film up upon further viewings. The Shade Shepherd is a callback to movies that demand second and third screenings. Not because it is at all confusing, but simply because it all makes so much sense. In an era where we like our movies telegraphed from miles away, this feels like a welcome return to such filmatic masterpieces as The Usual Suspects and Memento. Don’t believe me? Well, I guess you’ll have to just check this film out ASAP. Then let’s talk.
The Shade Shepherd is quite simply the best movie of 2019.
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