Chris Eska’s beautifully made Civil War drama “The Retrieval,”
which opens at Film Forum April 2, is a quietly stirring journey into America’s ravaged heartland of
1864. It follows three black men, two fully grown and one barely on the cusp of
adolescence, as they walk North and navigate the complexities of survival,
self-interest and slowly emerging friendship.
13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) and the older Marcus
(Keston John) work for a band of bounty hunters, led by the vicious Burrell
(Bill Oberst Jr.). Often they are tasked with locating hidden slaves,
insinuating themselves into the runaways’ company and then turning them over to
Burrell’s gang. When Will and Marcus are sent on a mission to find Nate, a freed
black man whose capture will bring a hefty sum, the two are warned that returning
without Nate will spell death.
Will and Marcus embark on their search, plodding through wintry
golden terrain and the scorched earth of battlefields, looking for a man with
the same skin color as their own whose deposited corpse will save them from a
similar fate. They eventually find Nate (Tishuan Scott), a large fellow with a
perceptive gaze. At first he’s wary of their claim that his sick brother is in
need of a visit, but he’s a decent man willing to trust that others are the
same, and goes along with them.
Will finds a kinship with Nate, one he doesn’t feel for the bullying,
self-serving Marcus. When Marcus is killed in the crosshairs of a
Union-Confederate battle that emerges suddenly on their overnight campground,
Will and Nate are left alone to continue their journey — towards the dead
brother who Nate believes is still alive, and the bounty hunting gang that will
murder Will if he doesn’t deliver his new friend.
“The Retrieval” is admirable for many reasons, one being
that it isn’t afraid to take its time. Writer-director Eska, who won the
Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award for his previous feature “August Evening,” lets
the drama unfold at a meditative pace. The characters primarily walk and talk
in this film, shooting penetrating glances at one another, conversing in low
tones, and always watching their environment for any gradual or sudden shift.
War territories are volatile, and though few scenes of violence occur in the
film, the possibility is always thick in the atmosphere, especially for Will
and Nate, whose freedom is an outrage to many.
But the most saliently impressive quality in the film is its
gorgeous mounting of period. Historical specificity is a financial burden for
any production, and particularly for an independent one. The production design
isn’t lavish, and much of it is shot in backwoods areas away from civilization,
but it has a worn and tattered, grey-gold uniformity that extends from the
locations to the costuming, and the beautifully lensed cinematography.
Indeed, “The Retrieval” is the best-looking film I saw at last year’s SXSW, taking advantage of such visual wonders as frost-covered fields,
misty swamps and the endless shades of bleakly glowing brown that the Texas
landscape provides in winter. The clean shot composition focuses on the many
aesthetic ways men can be filmed walking. Eska, who also edited, shows a flare
for tension built through rhythm. How Will, Nate and Marcus learn to trust each
other (or not) is communicated through shot and reaction shot duration.
Meanwhile, the occasional moment of incisive action is elegantly constructed;
Nate shows his ruthless side when he — beat — tells a man to stop running
away, and then — next beat — expertly fells him with a hatchet.
Scott nabbed the Jury Acting prize out of the Austin fest, and rightly so; he captures Nate
as a lone soul with strong instincts, in need of a son as deeply as Will is in
need of a father figure. Sanders is also strong as Will. His chemistry with
Scott is moving, and ultimately heartbreaking, but his best scene is opposite a
pretty young girl they meet while passing through a community of freed slaves.
In a quiet moment, the girl giggles and tells Will she wishes he’d stay, that
there aren’t many other children around. “I ain’t a child,” Will says,
hesitating for a fraction of a second before he and Nate continue on.
“The Retrieval” screens at Film Forum beginning April 2. Watch a clip below, with a TOH! exclusive second clip here.