The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Retrieval

The Retrieval would make for a good double feature with 12 Years a Slave. Both films address the psychological horrors of slavery - the fact that people, based on the color of their skin, were forced into terrible things that weren't fair and that they wanted no part of. Writer/director Chris Eska has made a movie of quiet, but undeniable, power, with a naturalistic feel that truly pulls you in. It may not be as emotionally devastating as Steve McQueen's Best Picture winner, but this independent production deserves notice.

The story takes place in 1864, as the Civil War rages on. Will (Ashton Sanders) is a 13-year-old boy who has found an unfortunate way to survive: he works for a gang of white bounty hunters, earning the trust of runaway slaves and then leading them into the waiting arms of their captors. The head man, Burrell (Bill Oberst, Jr.), sends Will and another slave, Marcus (Keston John), to find Nate (Tishuan Scott), a slave who's escaped to the free North. They do indeed locate him, feeding the man a fake story about his brother being ill. As they make their way perilously back down to the South, Will has to grapple with the morality of what he's doing.

The Retrieval is a very quiet, interior film. There are no dramatic, bloody scenes of the Civil War being fought, nor are there intense moments of lynchings or whippings, which almost always factor into movies dealing with slavery. The emphasis here is on the psychological toll of being black and trying survive in a deeply hostile, inhospitable time. Will sells out other people because it's the only way he can live. Unlike him, Marcus is much less conflicted about it. He's become hardened in a very Darwinian manner, and he tries to instill in Will a detachment that he believes will serve the boy well. Instead, it only adds to Will's uncertainty. If he becomes too much like Marcus and if he has to live with the knowledge that his survival came because he betrayed others just like him is he really that much better than Burrell and his gang? The issue is further clouded by Will's growing admiration of Nate, who appears to be a decent man, yet also understands the need to occasionally do unpleasant things in the name of self-protection.

Shot on a low budget, Eska makes The Retrieval look and feel very atmospheric. Most of the film takes place in the wilderness, which lends the story a cold, lonely vibe that echoes its themes. The acting is strong across the board, with Ashton Sanders giving one of those performances that's all in the eyes; he really shows you how Will absorbs a lot of disparate information and tries to sort it out. There's not a ton of dialogue on his end, yet you know exactly what's going on in Will's head at all moments. Tishuan Scott is the other standout. Although Nate has been fooled into walking into a trap, he is by no means stupid. In fact, it is his greater understanding of the injustices around him that permitted him to escape in the first place. At the same time, he has vulnerability underneath. Scott's finest moment comes when Nate is reunited with the wife he was cruelly separated from. It's a deeply emotional scene.

There are many admirable qualities to the film. However, The Retrieval needed a stronger beginning and a stronger ending. The movie jumps right into the action, showing Will betraying a runaway slave. That's fine, but it also makes you wonder how he got where he is. A little more backstory on him would have deepened the overall impact. Similarly, The Retrieval comes to what feels like the perfect ending, only to tack on a coda that's a bit too pat. The film should have ended a minute before it does.

The positive qualities outweigh the minor negative ones, though. By and large, The Retrieval is a very well-made and thoughtful exploration of how people muddle through when the deck is unfairly stacked against them. The characters sometimes do terrible things, but you don't judge them. It's all gray area, and the film boldly confronts you with that fact.

( out of four)

The Retrieval is rated R for some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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