Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Retrieval (2013)

Director: Chris Eska
Stars: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Christine Horn, Alfonso Freeman and Bill Oberst Jr
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
I have to admit that I had some doubts going into The Retrieval. Maybe my biggest worry was that I'd made it to into a theater at the Scottsdale 101 before I'd normally get up in the morning for the third day running, after two full fifteen hour days at the Phoenix Film Festival, so I was waiting for the tiredness to hit. It seemed like a period western might become the right time, especially as it quickly became obvious that its pace is deliberately measured. I had real concerns too though. I'd noted beforehand that it appeared to be a film about black characters but which was written and directed by a white man. These days that mix either bodes really well or really badly. I also noted that one of the three leads, Ashton Sanders, is a child actor making his debut on screen. That also tends to bode really well or really badly. There aren't many discoveries like Quvenzhané Wallis to be found, but then there are some or we wouldn't know her name.

What I found was that the tiredness didn't hit, kept firmly at bay by acting of a tremendous calibre and a script that was engaging and refreshing in a host of ways. It wasn't remotely like a story I'd seen before, for a start. It's a period piece set in 1864 during the American Civil War that cleverly unshackles itself of whatever baggage the audience brought in with the opening scene. We're set up to interpret the black kid walking across the fields to a house in a sort of Schindler's List way. He's apparently in need and an elderly white woman puts him in the barn with some other black folk that she's hiding. Maybe it's just for shelter, as the wind is already howling, or maybe she's a way out for runaway slaves. When the storm arrives in the more deadly form of men with torches on horseback, we automatically feel for the kid, but we soon discover that he's a rat. He's working for a bounty hunter called Burrell who has come not to burn but to retrieve.

Burrell is the first major character we meet who we expect to be a major character. Prolific actor Bill Oberst Jr commands our attention from moment one, even before he further confounds our expectation by being without prejudice. He shoots one of his own men in the shoulder to stop him picking a fight with a shackled slave, not for moral reasons but merely because it's lost property which he needs to return in good condition. It's about value. As he tells his own man, 'The nigger is worth $600. You ain't.' So we have a white bounty hunter who's pragmatic not prejudiced, with a black kid on his payroll who rats out his own. This isn't turning out to be the race film we might have expected, and that's really the key. While this film has a clear grounding in history, which means a clear grounding in racism, it doesn't aim to demonise one colour and beatify the other, either way around. It simply tells its story and lets us build the undertones in our minds.
The kid is Will, who's gifted with a peach of a story arc. At the beginning, he's working for Burrell, along with his uncle Marcus, and the bounty hunter sends the pair of them on a four day walk to retrieve one particularly dangerous nigger called Nate. I should highlight here that the N word is used a lot, by Burrell and Marcus. It isn't overdone, like Tarantino overdid it in Django Unchained, or for that matter, Pulp Fiction, but it's there nonetheless and it carries whatever connotation the speaker chooses it to carry in the context of the scene. Sometimes it's clearly derogatory, other times it's just a synonym for 'African American', but what's really interesting is who uses it and how. Oberst plays Burrell like Lance Henriksen would play him, a complex and dangerous man who sees things surprisingly simply. He uses the word in a matter of fact way, just like any other, but Will's Uncle Marcus uses it in many different ways, as befits his nature.

Neither Burrell nor Marcus are characters to like, but it's impossible not to like what the actors bring to them. In fact Burrell is so obviously deep a character that it's a good thing that he fades away into the background for a while like a bogeyman, because Oberst would have stolen scenes and that wouldn't have helped the picture. As strong and fascinating as Burrell is, this isn't about him, it's about Will and initially that means it's all about Marcus, as his most obvious role model, the only family he has, his immediate figure of authority. Unfortunately Marcus is utterly not the sort of person who needs to be influencing anybody, as is obvious from the fact that he has Will ratting out slaves for pay. Will's story arc kicks in when they reach that dangerous nigger they're tasked with leading back into a trap on an emotional pretext. He's Nate, a completely different character to Marcus, which of course is precisely the point. Will can't help but compare.
It would be cheap and unfair to suggest the characters initially fit stereotypes, but it's easy to see who would be typecast in these roles if Hollywood ever remade this on a big budget. Nate is very much an older Denzel Washington role, with moments of Morgan Freeman, while Marcus is more like a role for a young Samuel L Jackson. However, it might highlight how unstereotypical they are really by suggesting that Marcus is like Jackson playing a John Pyper-Ferguson character. In other words, he's more like a stereotypical cheap white villain who happens to be black. While it's easy to see those cheap resemblances, these characters refuse easy categorisation because they grow well in shades of grey. Of course Will grows more than anyone, because it's his story, but it's the way the other two build, especially on the journey back together as their strengths and flaws show up at particularly crucial moments, that shapes how his character builds.

It's not difficult to figure out the thrust of that character growth, because Nate is clearly an older, wiser character than anyone Will has ever met, with more experience, more strength and more of an edge. Marcus is more emotional and more rebellious, but less principled, a loudmouth with a streak of yellow. Throw these two adults onto the same road together, that's dangerous because of the war, because of their colour and because of the secrets Will and Marcus carry, and clearly we're set for Nate to become a father figure to the young man who doesn't have one of his own. Perhaps the biggest reason that this film succeeds is that even though we see all this early on, it never becomes predictable. There are points of serious tension throughout as we guess at which way writer/director Chris Eska is going to take his characters in a host of different situations. The ending makes sense but it's only one of many and we don't know which it'll be until we get there.

Ashton Sanders does a solid job as Will, especially given that he was a fifteen year old acting in his first film. It's easy to see that he carries his lines well but, more importantly, he carries his entire body well. Will is a downtrodden young man, stuck doing things that don't feel quite right but with nobody to give him guidance on why. Sanders never smiles, never loses that dropping head that reminds of a whipped dog. The only reason that people aren't raving about his performance is that he's only one of a number of actors who give rave-worthy performances in a powerful ensemble cast. Nate is a gift of a character for Tishuan Scott, who picks it up and runs with it. It wouldn't be difficult to throw a whole slew of superlatives his way for a truly outstanding performance of quiet emphasis, as he ensures that Nate is believably deep but never flawless. However, Keston John plays Marcus just as well; he's just stuck with a more loathsome character to bring to life.
Eska gave himself a difficult task here. He wrote a story rooted in simplicity that warranted simple sets, simple costumes, simple and sparse dialogue, but which carried with it substantial depth. He set all the most important scenes inside Will's head, as this thirteen year old boy comes of age at a particularly dangerous time in his country's history, discovering his conscience during a tortuous mental struggle between what he's been told to do and what he gradually realises is right. Yet all this turmoil takes place in emptiness. There's a lot of quiet here, with only three characters taking up most of the screen time and spending much of it attempting to keep the civil war that's raging around them from noticing that they exist. One particularly memorable scene has it literally ride into their campsite like a flood of horses and guns, but this movie isn't about the storm, it's about the calm at its centre, which is to say Will's quiet struggle with himself.

Technically it's very capable, but it's based more in good composition of frame and clever use of the countryside than anything flash or attention grabbing. The editing is most successful because we don't notice it, the soundtrack too. What remains stuck in my mind is the quietness, albeit a dangerous quietness, against which the story slowly but surely makes itself known. I'm no expert on the historical timeframe, but this seems to be well researched and phrased very differently to the usual civil war story. During the Q&A at the Phoenix Film Festival, Tishuan Scott talked about the reading he'd done as research and how it had deeply troubled him. It's far from a pretty time in this nation's past, but perhaps we don't realise how dark the reality was. Setting this coming of age story against that background, rather than focus on the brutality, actually brings it home all the more because we're looking at the thoughts and reactions more than actions themselves.

Eska deserves high praise for what he did here. He's hardly a prolific filmmaker, writing five films over ten years and directing three of them, but if his earlier work is anything like this, he made his time count. I'm very interested in his previous feature, August Evening, and a long short he shot in Japan in 2003 called Doki-Doki. This wouldn't have been the success it was if he didn't have a trio of outstanding lead actors, so the casting deserves credit too. Scott is the standout, but John and young Sanders do excellent work as well. Most of the rest of the cast are civil war reenactors who worked for barbecue and beer, but they do exactly what they're tasked with doing. No film won more than one award at this year's Phoenix Film Festival except this one, which won three: Best Ensemble, Best Director and the Audience Award. It wasn't as enjoyable as Down and Dangerous, as much fun as Waking or as delicious as Favor, but it was the best film I saw all festival.

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