Ever get a movie stuck in your head? Every once in a great while, I’ll watch a horror film and I’m not sure whether I like it or not. As i watch the credits scroll, I tilt my head like a confused terrier and think, “Huh.” But then it won’t let me go. It’s like getting a song stuck in your head—different scenes or lines or particular references come unbidden. I begin to wonder about a character’s true motives, . So just to shut up my head long enough to concentrate on life, I watch it again and more often than not, I love it.
In other words, it is a film which makes me think and feel well past the ending credits, often because I don’t think and feel the way I had anticipated. Kill List is an example. As is Martha Macy May Marlene, Berberian Sound Studio, Bug, Under the Shadow, Neon Demon, Resolution…and now, The Droving.
First, full disclosure: I love me some folk horror. Folk horror includes two of my greatest fears: cults and nature. Don’t get me wrong; I think nature is awesome–literally. I love nature in the same way a Christian claims to love the Old Testament God–with reverence, devotion and the understanding that at any moment, that psychotic bitch could kill me. Seriously. My idea of roughing it is no wifi.
In short, it’s possible that I’m biased…but if so, it’s not by much. This is simply an excellent film.
The problem with defining folk horror is that it is more intuitive than cerebral. Since I am an arrogant fool, I’ll be writing a post on folk horror eventually, but for now, I will arrogantly, foolishly boil it down to this: folk horror is usually characterized by a protagonist who finds themselves an outsider in a usually isolated rural/pastoral/tiny village setting, where the locals practice old traditions/rituals/magic, again, usually to the protagonist’s peril. Which still isn’t right. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
At least that is the case in The Droving. The plot seems straightforward enough: a soldier (Daniel Oldroy, Hex) returns on the one year anniversary of his sister’s disappearance, last seen on her way to the Winter Droving festival in Penrith, Cumbria. The Droving festival is a new tradition (2012) to commemorate an ancient one–that practice of walking livestock to market–which ends in a procession of torch-carrying, mask-wearing revelers, re-enacting a droving by “walking” enormous paper lantern livestock through the streets of Penrith.
It’s also an excellent setting for folk horror–beautiful but forbidding scenery, a small, rural community close to the border of Scotland, in which some residents still speak the old Celtic Cumbric dialect, in a variety of accents ranging from Queen’s English to a thick Scottish brogue. The festival itself was founded as a way to celebrate and preserve their rural traditions. The fact that co-writer Jonathan Russel lives in Penrith only adds to the authenticity.
Yet the title is misleading–the festival itself is incidental–less than five minutes of the film takes place during the Droving. Even the disappearance of Megan itself is a bit of a McGuffin; rather, the loss of Megan allows Martin to unleash the darkness he struggled to conceal. That is, Megan was Martin’s last moral obstacle; without her, he can surrender completely. In other words, the point of the movie is not about the loss of his sister; it is about his descent into depravity.
Which makes the Droving the perfect symbol, not only for Martin, but for every character in the movie–none of them are what they seem. They all, in their individual way, are hiding behind a mask, though none more so than Martin. He is a master manipulator, able to speed-read his subjects, locate their vulnerabilities, and turn those vulnerabilities into thumbscrews. He confides in the lonely single woman to engender a false intimacy. To a group of thugs, he is a timid milquetoast. With the hermit, he pretends that he, too, longs for the “old ways”; conversely, with the smug villain, Martin is deliberately intrusive and provokes him by making passive-aggressive comments which may or may not be interpreted as threats. In each case, once the subject is convinced that he is _______ (insert persona), Martin attacks with such whiplash suddenness, they are shocked into telling the truth. Which are all the psychological tactics he learned from his role in the military (no spoilers)…and there is the implication that Martin’s inherent darkness was created while performing those particular duties.
The entire point of the Droving festival is to celebrate and preserve their rural traditions and culture–in life, I have no doubt that those traditions are completely harmless…but it isn’t much of a stretch to interpret “rural traditions” as being something less than benign, if not completely fucking evil. By the way, without being an asshole spoiler, the tradition (and I don’t even want to explain what I mean by “tradition”) is completely made up, which I consider an unforgivable betrayal. No joke, I was disappointed. Because I am that childish.
Admittedly, The Droving has its flaws. This is one of those rare occasions in which I felt the movie would have been better had it been longer. Because of the 80 minute limitation, there were times it felt a little too neat, the answers came too easily…it is a bit too pat; honestly, had he occasionally hit a brick wall it would’ve felt less, “this happened. Then this happened. Next this happened. The end”. Then again, maybe it is the brutal consequences of those easy answers which destroys others and dooms him to an inevitable, horrifying destiny. And my god, what an ending. It isn’t Kill List gut-punch shocking, but it is as close to perfect as they come.
I heartily recommend The Droving for anybody who likes their horror a bit more cerebral, less obvious and for absolutely any fan of folk horror; however, if you’re looking for an “I don’t feel like thinking, just fucking scare me” movie–and hey, depending on my mood, I like those, too–this movie probably isn’t for you.
The Droving–along with director George Popov’s Hex–are both streaming on Prime.