What’s that? A bleak Scottish film? I don’t believe you.
Shell is evidently a labour of love for Scott Graham, who wrote and directed a short of the same name back in 2007; now he presents us with an augmented version of the short as a debut feature. His belief in the piece to hold water as a full-length narrative is a little misplaced, as whilst there are moments of clarity, we’re presented with an otherwise haphazard, gloomy story.
The eponymously named Shell (Chloe Pirrie) lives and works with her father Pete (Joseph Mawle) at a small petrol station lost amidst the flowing Scottish highlands. Her mother left them during Shell’s childhood, and we witness the day-to-day, meager existence that the pair eke out together in this wintery, existentialist locale.
Every now and again a visitor passes by, either to purchase fuel or on account of an accident. The area is littered with deer, who meander onto the roads and invariably end up getting smashed into by vehicles. The innocence of the animals is comparable to Shell’s plight, for being so isolated and encountering equally sequestered souls leads her to be a prey of sorts.
The first predator we encounter is Hugh, played by the perfectly affable Michael Smiley, whom I particular enjoyed in Kill List (2011). He plays a lonely salesman who stops off at the petrol station on his way to visit his estranged kids during alternating weekends. He becomes enamored with Shell, but pushes the boundaries too far and is summarily spurned.
The second predator is Adam (Iain De Caestecker), a boy roughly the same age as Shell. It’s obvious that he is attracted to her, and frequently visits under the loose pretense of getting fuel. The two eventually commit to empty, soulless intercourse in Adam’s car.
The final predator is in fact Shell’s father, Pete. The unease between father and daughter is pungent throughout the film. Pete suffers from severe fits, and is obviously detached on account of his wife leaving him. Shell fills the vacuum of homemaker adequately, cooking, cleaning and running the petrol station whilst he sees to mechanical stuff, but he is constantly reminded that she is simply a lonely teenager condemned to a pointless existence removed from society.
Either due to Pete’s illness, or simply his disposition, he often confuses Shell for his absent wife. Shell seems to play up to it, maintaining an uncomfortably tactile relationship with him, with Pete joking at one stage that he should get her a dog. The only laugh in the film aside, Shell finds her father suffering a particularly brutal fit towards the end of the film, which ends with him using her hand instead of a stick to bite down upon. Later, they slumber together; confused and lonely, Pete passionately kisses Shell, immediately apologising. Shell doesn’t mind.
The climax of the film is Pete finally understanding that it is in fact him holding his daughter back, and if they continue to live together, he may eventually do something terrible. To remedy this, he jumps in front of a passing truck, rendering himself dead, to many tears from his grieving daughter.
Yes, the film is bleak. Unnecessarily so, most of the time. The vapid, grey characters who pass in and out of Shell’s life with little consequence, and the semi-incestuous relationship between her and her father make for interesting, if existentialist, ideas, but translated onto the screen they fail to engage. There’s the potential for an awful lot to happen, but not much does. This isn’t to say that things always have to happen in a film to make it entertaining, but the generally insipid characters, and constant tension to no avail, made me feel let down by the end of it.
I really wanted to like Shell – the stark vistas and inclement weather mixed with the desolate petrol station was a wonderful stage, but there was just no performance. When each character or event began to get interesting, they would never be seen again. And as lovable as Shell was, she became more annoying than anything else. The complexity of the relationship between her and Pete wasn’t explored, and could have been so much more. But, I cannot question the passion behind the film – as I’ve written, it was obviously something that Graham felt the urge to create.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Life is bleak. People flit in and out of it like a broken neon light. Sometimes, like Shell, we cling on to passersby simply because we may never see them again, only to go home to our own shitty petrol station and kiss our epileptic fathers.
Then again, maybe not.