This Week's Film: The Retrieval (2014)
Written, Directed and Edited by Chris Eska
Actors: Tishuan Scott, Ashton Sanders. Keston John. Bill Oberst Jr.
What's it About: The story of young boy (Sanders) who works with a white bounty hunter (Oberst Jr.) to capture runaway slaves and freedmen. He gains the trust of the hunted and then leads the bounty hunters to them. The boy and his shifty Uncle (John) are sent to retrieve a man named Nate (Scott) from several miles away. But if they fail, their lives are forfeit; but if they succeed then their souls are too.
Is It Good: It is good, but there are problems that kept me from being fully emotionally invested in the film. Actually, it's really just 'problem', singular. The budget. While the film is shot handheld for much of its running time, the camera stays stationary through almost the entire film. This choice, along with the obviously minuscule budget, leave the film feeling like a TV movie with excellent performances. The decidedly un-cinematic nature of the way the film is shot kept me at a distance from the story even as the performances drew me in to the characters.
Tishuan Scott has a powerful screen presence so he's fascinating to watch even as his character remains a cypher. We know his backstory and motivations, Nate never becomes as clear to us as he could have been with more incisive writing. Ashton Sanders Will is the same way. We know why he's in the situation he is in, but some of the choices he makes are muddy and left what should have been a powerful and devastating climax feeling unintentionally stilted. Keston John is also good as Will's Uncle Marcus, but he just feels like an archetype more than a lived in character. The understated quality of Bill Oberst Jr's performance as Burrell actually gives the character much more depth than is on the page. It's a change of pace for Oberst who does some truly subtly and incisive work with a character that could have easily read as one note.
The performances kept the film working for me throughout the entire running time even when it threatened to alienate me as a viewer. While the film is much more of a road movie than a film about slavery or the Civil War, the way the characters weave in and out of those thematic areas is very well done. I'm not saying writer/director/editor Chris Eska should have manufactured 'style' in order to have a more visually interesting film, but it might have added some much needed atmosphere to a film taking place primarily in swamps and forests. Essa has made a good movie here, but it could have been a great one.
LINK to the Movie: Not a problem!
Grade: B (half a grade down for the style-less directing)
Favorite Line: "I'm proud of you."-Nate
Next Week: Heavenly Sword