With his second feature film, The Retrieval, director Chris Eska takes us on a journey through the fringes of post-emancipation America during the Civil War. Eska weaves an engaging tale about what it was like to live in that time, when emancipation didn’t necessarily guarantee freedom. He eschews direct commentary on the war or slavery in favor of spending time with his characters as they try to survive in a harsh environment. By focusing on the characters, what could have just been a period piece is instead a story about human beings. To this end, Eska has made a deeply moving film about finding morals when our choices are few.
The movie takes place on what seems to be the geographic edges of the Civil War. We hear a couple of town names – where people are going to or coming from – but it doesn’t seem to matter. This story could take place virtually anywhere in the American south. In this desolate land, we meet up with a group of white bounty hunters led by the psychopathic Burrell, played by chilling B-Horror actor Bill Oberst Jr. Burrell and company hunt down runaway slaves and bring them back to the south for reward. In his employ are a freed black man, Marcus, and teenager, Will, who befriend the runaways, bring them to a safe house, and then inform Burrell of their location. Such is business as usual. But on their latest job, Marcus and Will are tasked with heading up north to find a man, Nate, and bring him back south under the pretense that his brother is dying. Things don’t play out according to plan and Marcus and Will are left to make tough moral choices in a place where the right decision is rarely rewarded.
In the universe of The Retrieval, right and wrong are moving and, at times, converging targets. Eska presents his characters as sums of their moral choices, each character representing a different path of principles for survival. Marcus is a man of money. To him, survival is directly linked to the amount of coin he can amass, so that he might leave behind a life of living hand to mouth. Money is a path to freedom; it’s a matter of pragmatism. Burrell desires money as much as Marcus and will shoot down any man that is between him and a payday, though for him money is not a path to freedom, rather, he’s just greedy. The relationship between Marcus and Burrell is ostensibly one of usefulness: they matter to each other inasmuch as they are useful to each other. But it seems that Burrell controls Marcus as much by force as by money, threatening him and Will if things aren’t done to his liking.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nate, the freed man they are tasked with finding. Nate is a man of honor, and in Eska’s south this isn’t common. On their journey, he slowly becomes a father figure to Will. Tishuan Scott – who won an award at SXSW for his portrayal of Nate – is an intimidating force, imbuing Nate with a strength that seems to carry him through the desolate world of The Retrieval. Will – played by Ashton Sanders in a fantastic onscreen debut – is sort of the sun of this moral universe. Everyone is orbiting around him in ellipses, and when they move close, he is able to glean a little more from each man’s character. He builds up his burgeoning moral standards piece by piece over the course of the film.
This dynamic works well because Eska allows us to see the characters’ reasoning. Even when they are making bad choices – or downright horrific ones – we know why each character makes the choice he does. And this is at the heart of the movie: giving the audience such close access to the characters as a means of breathing life into the past. The movie strips away the facades of historical monoliths – like the Emancipation Proclamation – to expose the actualities of the time. We get a riveting depiction of these changes and how they affected the lives of people at the time.
The vacant landscapes of The Retrieval are beautiful and are an appropriate backdrop for philosophical and moral questioning of the movie. The open fields and forests seem to stretch on forever and Eska offers some shots of land that are worthy of Sergio Leone. Watching the characters traverse the landscape, we’re given a real sense of living off the land. Of walking for days at a time to reach your destination. Of trudging through waste deep swamps. Of what it means to be in a place and of that place. The characters coping with this landscape is reflective of their struggles coming to grips with their changing world. This is not a time of easy journeys.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
The Retrieval is part western and part morality play. A beautifully shot and well acted film that attempts to get at who we are and who we choose to be. Chris Eska illuminates the realities of a time that we may have only had exposure to in school. The movie delves deeper. Moving past the superficial, sidelining the the oft trodden stories of the Civil War and slavery, it offers up a new voice in the conversation about our history.