Film Review: 'The Droving'
A tense atmosphere and an intrigue-filled mystery offset this indie drama's rocky start.
On leave from his tour of duty, soldier Martin's (Daniel Oldroyd) homecoming is a somber one. With his sister Megan (Amy Tyger) having suddenly disappeared, a remorseful Martin makes it his mission to find her. With Megan's friend Tess (Suzie Frances Garton) as his sole ally, Martin begins his search throughout their mysterious town to find out what happened to his sister.
Soon after arriving, Martin learns about the upcoming winter festival known as The Droving, and how some members of the community take the festival rituals too seriously. Convinced Megan's disappearance must have something to do with The Droving, Martin looks further into the bizarre festival. How far will Martin go to find his sister--and how much will his search cost him?
Three years ago, Jonathan Russell and George Popov made their debut as a writer/director pair with the period drama Hex, which I subsequently reviewed earlier this year. As my review will tell you, Hex was a thriller that had its interesting premise stifled and suffocated by its pedestrian pace, ending on an unsatisfying note just when it appeared to be going somewhere. Three months ago, Russell and Popov presented The Droving as their sophomore foray into film, with two stars from Hex (Daniel Oldroyd and Suzie Frances Garton) returning as well. While some of the same problems that sank Hex can be found in The Droving, this second offering from Russell and Popov is a significant improvement that seems to indicate good things for the duo.
For much of The Droving's first 10-20 minutes, I feared it was going down the same ill-fated path as its predecessor, with the film taking a deliberate pace in establishing its setting, the circumstances of Megan's disappearance, and Martin himself. This pace brought to mind memories of Hex, and I found myself gearing up for another sluggish thriller devoid of thrill. Thankfully, the script makes sure to throw some intense moments in between its slower-boiling stretches, with one such second act scene between Martin and a hermit connected to Megan being an exceptionally riveting scene. This not only keeps The Droving from spiraling into tedium, but it also allows intrigue to build surrounding what happened to Megan and what secrets this unusual community is hiding. The answer was a surprise for me, and despite being able to foresee how the ultimate finale would play out, it didn't take away from how emotionally raw and satisfying The Droving's conclusion was. If nothing else, it blows Hex's half-baked conclusion straight out of the water.
The performances of The Droving prove as solid as the ones in Hex, enhanced by a script that gives the actors more to work with. Daniel Oldroyd makes Martin a richly faceted protagonist, particularly as his quest to find Megan leads him to employ extreme measures. Oldroyd throws himself into Martin's darker and more violent moments, which will leave you wondering just how honorable Martin's mission is. Is he justified in his desperation to find Megan, or are his actions too severe to excuse? Martin's development into a fascinating anti-hero becomes one of the big drawing points of The Droving, with Oldroyd's alternately charming and menacing portrayal sealing the deal.
Suzie Frances Garton delivers the same authentic energy and emotion as her former Hex co-star, with her performance being a highlight of the film's final act. Amy Tyger brings a warmth to the flashbacks we see of Megan, and Popov brings an easygoing (yet slightly snarky) charisma as he steps out from behind the camera to play Megan's then-boyfriend Alex in said flashbacks. SPOILER ALERT Despite his character being introduced rather late, Bobby Robertson makes the most of his screentime as surprise villain Simon, playing him in a way to switch back and forth between loathing him and empathizing with him. Alexander King similarly makes great use of his sparse time as The Merchant, giving him the sinister but outwardly comforting allure needed to make him believable as a manipulative specter capable of coercing even Martin into doing anything he says. Spoilers Over
At the bottom of the cast totem pole, however, we have Jonathan Lawrence Risdon as the previously mentioned hermit. Throughout much of his appearance in the film, Risdon delivers an emotional performance, with the tension-brimmed scene he shares with Oldroyd being among the best of the movie. But in his character's final moments, his efforts to depict the hermit's tearful remorse about what he confesses to Martin feel forced and unnatural--not to mention how Risdon delivers parts of the hermit's confession in a nonchalant manner that betrays his expressed guilt. Otherwise, though, Risdon brings the same energy and feeling into his performance as the rest of the crew.
Despite all the improvements that The Droving boasts over Hex, there are still plenty of places where the film drags to the point where some viewers may find their attention waning. But as opposed to the yawn-inducing Hex, The Droving brings enough thrills and mystery to the table to keep viewers from clicking away and has a final act that cranks the action up to reward the viewer for sticking around until the end. The script gives the film's capable cast more to chew on, and The Droving does more to build on its underlying message about grief and the futility of revenge than Hex did with its efforts to craft a message against senseless war. Add to that The Droving replicating its predecessor's excellent camerawork, and you have a film that indicates admirable growth on the part of its writing/directing team in the years since their debut. Here's hoping such growth will continue for Russell and Popov.
Score: 6.5 out of 10 vixen masks.