The common raven, Corvus corax, intelligent, opportunistic and versatile in diet, they will consume whatever is to hand, insects, berries, small animals, and have no objection to scavenging the dead. Ubiquitous across the whole of the northern hemisphere, for former soldier Andrew there is no escape from the unkindness of ravens who still haunt him after his return home to Scotland after his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Struggling with the transition to civilian life and sleeping rough his therapist suggests a retreat from the city, that he take the opportunity of a vacant artist’s retreat for a month until a permanent residence becomes available, spending the time photographing the wildlife, writing about his experiences and trying to heal, expressing his feelings and so overcoming them.
Making his way north from Edinburgh to the Highlands by train, he reaches the isolated cottage by foot, beneath a hill by a dense forest; alone he walks the hills and fields, but never alone, the ravens in the branches, the ravens in the eaves, the ravens within, a sketch on the wall of the cottage, the ravens in his dreams, nightmares of Afghanistan, of the friends he lost, of the things he saw.
Like Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, it is not long before there is a nocturnal rapping at Andrew’s window in The Unkindness of Ravens, directed by Lord of Tears‘ Lawrie Brewster, once again from a script by collaborator Sarah Daly who also contributes to the gorgeous folky soundtrack along with Joseph Ruddleston, genuine singers playing instruments, songs of the land and of honest people which tie the present to the history of the land, but there is no comfort in those bleak hills.
Nature is violent and unforgiving, and so is war; with bodies everywhere in his memories, many of them children, Andrew’s squad were little more than youths themselves. Without the distraction of other people to fill his troubled mind, Andrew is not developing psychoses, they are already there fully formed and haunting him, visions of figures in black, visions of himself in uniform, aggressively taunting him and pushing him deeper into his fears.
With sparse dialogue it’s a film largely of image and sound carried by Lord of Tears‘ Jamie Scott Gordon, present in almost every shot, sympathetic and earnest even as he dissolves, trying to escape from the sand of the desert he carries with him wherever he goes, haunted even in the damp undergrowth of the forest by fragmented memories: did he try to do the right thing or did he only wish he had? Either way, the right thing was still just a different wrong thing.
“Lost servants of a dead god, they stalk the desolate plain feeding on those doomed to walk the forked path,” the figures in the woods in their plague masks are hunting Andrew, forcing him to take action to protect himself; refusing to accept the fate they have apparently decreed for him, what if he is wrong? Is isolation from society the best course for a man suffering from hallucinations? Yet this is the truth for too many veterans of armed conflicts, abandoned to fend for themselves when their immediate usefulness is ended.
A descending spiral of tortured madness, the atmospheric locations adding much to the film, Brewster achieves a great deal with his meagre resources, many of the prosthetics and costumes of a standard normally associated with considerably higher budgeted productions, though the narrative does become somewhat caught in a loop of bodily violations, harvesting eyeballs and innards, rather than progressing and developing the full potential of the diverse elements.