Midlands Review - Shoulder to the Plough
By midlandsmovies, Jul 16 2018 08:40PM
Shoulder to the Plough
Directed by Nick Archer
A cacophony of strings and a blood red lava liquid opens this interpretive and non-conventional new short film from local director Nick Archer.
The shocking titles give way to a woman (Becki Lloyd as Vanessa) situated in an enclosed barn with red blood on her hands before she stalks the brick-walled corridors and reaches her palm into the sky – or is it into water?
Cutting abruptly between the stark images, director Archer has provided a number of metaphorical themes in a very ambiguous short. However, there are teases of subjects and ideas which are given more context by the Friedrich Nietzsche quote on nihilism at the film’s conclusion
Before we get there though, there’s a nod or two to Nicolas Winding Refn’s work with the bold colours, an atonal score and crimson coloured digits. Screams of a baby are edited alongside our protagonist in a pool of water giving the feeling of a metaphorical birth – or perhaps the loss of a baby? Again, left open to interpretation.
Later, walking silently within a field, Vanessa at times looks into the camera challenging the audience to bring their own meaning to each of the film’s inquisitive charms.
In one sequence a blood covered hammer sits in a disused cot covered and despite its sober and unsettling themes, there’s something of a fairy tale about the images shown. When a voice asks her what she is doing, the question comes from a man (Richard Buck) who is revealed to be spread out on an allegorical picnic blanket. An awkward kiss from her prince charming and a discussion on dream moments again wrap the film in an aura of multiple readings and asks us to question these dream spaces - or are they repressed memories?
Much like Aronofsky’s “mother!” the film wallows in its ambiguity as Vanessa recounts a dream of drowning in thick mud and as she does so, the man’s hand drifts towards her mid-drift and later towards the hem of her skirt mixing up parental paranoia with sexual sensuality.
But like that film, the woman’s dreams are interrupted with a flash of visceral violence before the return of the blood red liquid from the film’s intro.
Although quoting Nietzsche suggests the filmmaker is questioning structure (both in terms of narrative and the protagonist’s life), the short’s title could hark to Luke 9:62 where Jesus declared, "“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Suggesting the only way is forward and not being distracted by the things left behind, I suspect the film’s ambiguity is there to prick the audience rather than provide any internal decoding itself. But that quote could be construed as an allusion to a past act that one prefers not to recall. And with such a sinful act, one would not enter heaven.
On a technical level, the film is well shot and the images composed to within an inch of its life. Tom Rackham’s score has echoes of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie and mysterious Arrival score and throughout this film, the music soundtracks the disturbing images beautifully.
In summary though, Shoulder to the Plough is a short that intends to avoid simple representation and although one reading could be a possible insight into post-natal depression, another could simply be a literal translation of nihilism’s impulses to destroy.
Whatever audiences bring themselves to the short, they will leave with a vivid portrayal of some unspeakable act delivered using an ambiguous tone that permeates throughout the film.
Midlands Movies Mike