'Eight For Silver' Review: Boyd Holbrook Hunts Werewolves In Atmospheric Thriller [Sundance 2021]

Werewolf stories frequently involve allegorical explorations of the duality of man: the clash between the "civilized" surface layer and the violent beast within. But unlike so many other films in this genre, writer/director Sean Ellis's new werewolf thriller Eight for Silver does not fixate on a gruesome physical transformation to illustrate that duality. Instead, Ellis deploys the werewolf as a roaming specter hellbent on revenge – and in this film, innocent people are forced to suffer for the sins of their elders.

Primarily set in the late 1800s during a cholera epidemic (which obviously adds an extra layer of timeliness), the majority of the story centers on the wealthy Laurent family, who live in an isolated manor in the English countryside where the skies are always gray and a thin layer of fog never seems to fully dissipate. The patriarch, Seamus (Alistair Petrie), has a frosty relationship with his wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), and is more concerned about his business affairs than interacting with his wife and children. Turns out his affairs sometimes involve the slaughter of innocent people. When a community of gypsies rolls in and sets up camp on a nearby tract of land, proving that they are the rightful owners, Seamus and his fellow landowners in the region can't stand the idea of co-existing with them. The gypsies won't be bought off or negotiated with – they simply want the land that belongs to them. So Seamus and company hire a band of mercenaries to murder them. But before the last member of the gypsy community is buried alive, she curses the land and all who live on it.

That curse infects the dreams of everyone there, including the children, who begin having nightmares about a man who has his limbs hacked off, his clothing stuffed with straw, and is strung up as a grisly makeshift scarecrow in a local field. That nightmare is real: the man is one of the gypsies tortured by the mercenaries, and the film is unflinching in depicting his brutal fate. Soon after, werewolves start to terrorize the land, the first one having been bitten by a set of silver teeth which were melted down from the coins paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus Christ. When Seamus's son goes missing, a pathologist (Boyd Holbrook) who happens to have a personal history of dealing with werewolves is hired to locate the boy, and the rest of the film deals with that investigation.

Instead of centering this story on an infected individual, Ellis subjects an entire community to the dangers of werewolves, using the movie's framework to craft a powerful metaphor for one of society's biggest festering sins: the way colonizers stole lands from indigenous people and shoved aside populations which didn't fit into their twisted visions of progress and expansion. The massacre of the gypsy tribe is one of the most extraordinarily filmed scenes in recent memory: in a single ultra-wide shot, we see the mercenaries ride out to the community, have one final conversation with the tribal leaders, then gun them down and burn the camp, running people down as they scatter and murdering them in cold blood. Ellis's framing of this shot recalls paintings of historical atrocities, like François Dubois' The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, where your eye sees a new horror as it scans every corner of the image.

Not every decision pays off as well as that one, though. The choice to use heavy CG for the werewolves feels disconnected with the rest of the movie's tactile feel, and will certainly cause it to age more poorly than if makeup and prosthetics had been used throughout. (There are several moments when those preferred techniques are used, including one of the film's big "holy shit" scenes that felt as if it were ripped from John Carpenter's The Thing.) Though Boyd Holbrook delivers a solid performance as the hero, he feels a bit too modern and clean cut for this movie. And despite the movie building to a big climax, I was left feeling like there was one more gear that it was never able to shift into, and perhaps a few more thematic strands it could have tied to give the movie even deeper resonance.

Even so, this is the best film I've seen at Sundance 2021 thus far. Ellis, a British filmmaker who previously directed movies like Cashback and Anthropoid, is able to engage with the way we've treated indigenous people in a way that few American filmmakers have, grappling with the horror and the guilt and the shame of that original sin and funneling it all into a cathartic reckoning. Haunting, harrowing, and hypnotic, Eight for Silver is a werewolf story with a lot on its mind. You'll never look at a scarecrow the same way again.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10