The Retrieval (Variance Films, NR)

film retrieval smThe Retrieval is less a Civil War picture than a road movie and a coming-of-age tale.




film retrieval

Ambiguity, moral and otherwise, is at the heart of The Retrieval, written, directed, and edited by Chris Eska. The story begins in 1864 as the Civil War is winding down. Some slaves have taken advantage of the disruption to escape to the north, and in the opening scene, you have every reason to believe you are seeing one of them.

A 13-year-old boy, Will (newcomer Ashton Sanders), approaches a farmhouse, where a white woman wordlessly offers him shelter in a barn where several other slaves are sleeping on a pile of hay. One gives him some food from her tiny cache before falling back asleep, a powerful gesture of solidarity based on the presumption of their shared circumstances. After she has fallen asleep, the boy rises and goes out to meet a white man in the clearing, and it’s clear that the agenda is something other than what appearances suggest—in fact, the boy is working for a bounty hunter, and is about to betray the slaves in the barn.

It’s a tough world, but this seems a particularly cruel betrayal. There’s no nobility behind Will’s actions, either: Pushed by his uncle Marcus (Keston John), he’s in it for the money. Will is also motivated by self-preservation—should he fail in his mission, the bounty hunter has threatened to hunt him down and kill him. There’s not a lot of room for moral niceties in this world: Will is a means to an end for both the head bounty hunter (Bill Oberst, Jr.) and Marcus, and both explicitly refer to human beings (slaves) in terms of the price on their heads.

Still, Will is only 13, and not entirely sure he wants to follow the path of his uncle. Will’s moral crisis comes to a head when he and Marcus successfully entice another escaped slave, Nate (Tishuan Scott), to return South with them to pay a last visit to Nate’s dying brother. Sadly, Will’s youth and apparent innocence play a key role in convincing Nate to take the risk.

The Retrieval is less a Civil War picture than a road movie and a coming-of-age tale. As the three make there way through the rural U.S. (the film was shot in Texas, which stands in well for points further east), the only thing that really feels like it is at stake is Will’s moral development, or lack thereof. He’s offered two contrasting role models in Marcus and Nate, neither of who offers a particularly nuanced approach to life—Marcus is all about looking out for Number One, while Nate is both amazingly noble and has a James-Bond-like ability to do whatever is necessary in a given circumstance—and has to decide which path to follow.

Despite all the awards showered on The Retrieval (including a Special Jury Prize for Acting from SXSW), to me it feels more like something you might expect to see on PBS: a story set in an historical period crucial to the development of the modern United States and engineered to spark a discussion of moral issues faced by the characters. Still, considering how rarely the Civil War has been examined from any perspective other than that of white men, it’s definitely worth seeing. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Retrieval will be screened as part of the Webster University Film Series, on May 23, 24, and 25 at 7:30 pm in the Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood, St. Louis, Mo. 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID. Tickets are available from the cashier before each screening; to learn about other options, contact the Film Series office 314-246-7525. The Film Series can only accept cash or checks.

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