Sunday, May 9, 2021

Toby Matthews | Worthy Is the Lamb

lost lambs in search of a shepherd

by Douglas Messerli

Cristy Matthews and Toby Matthews (screenplay), Toby Matthews (director) Worthy Is the Lamb / 2018

British director Toby Matthews’ 2018 thirty-minute film, Worthy Is the Lamb is what you might describe as a distorted look back by from the distracted 21st century at the narrative tropes of English playwright Joe Orton.

     In what appears to be a family affair—Christy and Toby Matthews, presumably brothers, wrote the script to the film produced by Amy Matthews—the Matthews’ turn their focus on two adoptive brothers, Jack (Christy Matthews) and Sol (Faegan White), who are reunited after several years to carry out Jack’s grandmother’s wishes concerning the disbursement of her ashes. Obviously, given the story, she desired to have her remains tossed off a high hilltop in the beautiful Lake District of Britain, where this film was shot in 2017. Perhaps she had read John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” once too many times or wanted to search out the urns and obelisks of Wordsworth’s “To the Sons of Burns...”; but in any event Jack in his mini-van shows up, urn in hand, to wait along a lonely roadside for Sol to show up in his motorbike.

      From the very start we recognize them as utter opposites, Jack the rather neurotic straight-laced would-be bureaucrat (he sells houses) and Sol a sort of lost neo-Nazi hippie (he wears a wavy version of a mohawk and smells and looks like he hasn’t bathed in weeks; he admits he hasn’t). In fact, we might almost recognize them as somewhat Beckettian characters, particularly since Sol, as Jack describes him, scouts out the country during the day while sleeping in ditches each night, and Jack is obviously in ill-health, repeatedly retching after even the slightest of activity while still commenting that in his heavy smoking Sol is attempting to rush into death. Both are waiting for someone other than each other to show up and lead them away, like lost lambs in search of a shepherd.

      As Jack later explains, he had somewhat looked forward to this reunion, hoping that Sol might have altered his life, had found something regular and meaningful to do. But alas the motorcyclist in his black leather jacket seems to be as out of place and time as possible, an almost bizarre figure given the film’s background of such poetic natural beauty. 

      Sol is so cynical about death and funeral rites that it seems amazing that he has shown up at all; and when, after Sol’s motorbike break down, the two finding themselves shooting rocks at bottles of beer with a sling shot drawn from Sol’s miraculously deep leather jacket pockets, Jack wishes that he hadn’t again met up with his brother, feelings that we are certain Sol might share.

      Hurt and angry, the drunken Sol jumps into Jack’s van and speeds off, driving down the dark Lake District highway to a violent nowhere until he accidentally hits and kills an unexpected figure who suddenly appears alongside the road. Startled by the incident, Sol pulls the body into the back of the van, turns the vehicle about, and heads back to Jack, attempting to explain to him what has just occurred. Jack is so relieved to see the return of his van and brother that he won’t let Sol speak, apologizing for having spoken out the way he had.

      Both realizing that they are in no condition to go anywhere that night, they set up a small tent, Sol sneaking out in the middle of the night to steal the blanket off the body to warm himself in the narrow tent where he sleeps aside his brother, his brother apparently being such a cold fish that he can warm-up no one.

      The next morning we see them driving off to wherever the grandmother has designated to be the drop off spot of her body’s ashes. When Sol stops for Jack to pee, he quickly pulls the body out of back where’s he’s stashed it, attempting to pull it into a ditch across the way. But when he looks up to see Jack staring down at him, he is forced to tearfully explain the events that led up to his so desperately now needing his “brother’s” help.

      Improbably, the two find a small tool shed in the middle of field next to which they place the body, pour gasoline upon it, and light a match. As the body burns, Sol takes out the man’s billfold which he has purloined from the corpse, noting that its name is Benjamin Ross. Finally, they gather up his ashes as well, mostly in a plastic bag, but some of them saved in Sol’s comically bottomless jacket pockets.

       When they finally arrive at the designated hill they attempt to scramble up its rocky cliffs, only to have Jack drop the urn as they near the top. Scrambling down to the broken vessel, they scoop up what they can of the mother’s ashes, some of them put into a paper back by Jack while most of them join Ben’s in Sol’s pockets.

        Along the way Sol pulls a heather from a crevice of a boulder and at the top we see them standing both before tiny stone obelisks as Jack delivers a funeral oration to the unknow Benjamin Ross, after which they throw both the grandmother’s and Ben’s ashes into the winds from the hilltop. As Jack begins to walk away, we observe the seemingly cynical Sol rush back for a second to pull a few branches of the heather laid at the base of one obelisk to place it at the other, so ridiculously sentimental and touch that we almost cry at the pointlessness of it all.

        We watch them slowly descend to the very edge of a lake where they both strip down to their underwear and dive into the water, swimming out a few feet before turning almost simultaneously over to float for a long while in what suddenly appears to be a kind of brotherly ritual which puts them, at least for the moment, at total peace.

        They swim back to shore, sitting each upon a rock to shiver out in the cold dark of daylight. If they finally find their way back to the van—and they now look both so lost, spiritually and emotionally, that it truly does seem they might never make their way back to civilization again—we can only imagine they will return to their separate quite meaningless pursuits, with only the memory of the few days of shared events, which in their comic absurdity and instants of caring and loving beauty, might permit them to continue along their paths to death.

Los Angeles, May 9, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).



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