A desolate petrol station in the Scottish Highlands becomes the oppressive stage for this quietly eerie drama about Shell (Chloe Pirrie), a 17-year-old woman who lives and works at said station with her shy, epileptic father Pete (Joseph Mawle). The idle chit-chat between Shell and the few customers she encounters comprises the majority of Scott Graham’s feature debut’s first act, and given the sheer lifelessness of her surroundings, the drudgery of her father putting an injured deer out of its misery appears to qualify as a notable event. Though bleakly graphic in small measures, the real joy of Shell is its strong sense of atmospheric deprivation and isolation, spurred on by immaculate sound design, the howling winds enhancing the existential angst and solemn longing of the eponymous protagonist.
There’s a sinister undercurrent to all this that’s best not talked about for fear of spoilers, but it’s a tension obvious from the second it abounds, a perpetual unease envisioned through hugs, kisses, and gifts. By act three, this moves to the foreground, a subtle but transfixing game of pawns and checkmates, generating an atmosphere that becomes more and more unsettling in the lead-up to the inevitable but no-less upsetting payoff. It’s all a testament to newcomer Chloe Pirrie, who conveys more with her strange, expressive countenance than with words. Cryptic dialogue serves mainly to keep the mystery and the intrigue alive; its payoff is with unexpected actions on the part of the two protagonists.
Beautifully haunting, painterly visuals help exacerbate the hopelessness right up until (nearly) the very last frame; Shell is locked into a prison in which she appears to have no escape, unless an unexpected benefactor can set her free. Though it perhaps didn’t need to indulge the full thrall of its constant tease, the end result, even eschewing subtlety as it presses on, is nevertheless shattering and unquestionably absorbing. Scott Graham’s striking debut oozes atmosphere and is well worth the slow-burn.
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