SXSW Review: 'The Retrieval'

Equal parts suspenseful road movie, persuasively detailed period drama and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story, “The Retrieval” is an outstanding example of regional indie filmmaking accomplished with limited resources and an abundance of skill. Despite the marketplace’s general aversion to oaters, pic should travel far on fest circuit, and attract appreciative viewers in ancillary platforms. But writer-director Chris Eska’s Civil War-era drama about black freedmen pressed into service by white bounty hunters might also connect with the public if handled by a distrib capable of reaching mainstream auds in general, and urban ticketbuyers in particular.

In 1864, as the Civil War continues to rage, 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) and his brutally cynical Uncle Marcus (Keston John) are gainfully employed, whether they want to be or not, by a taciturn tough customer named Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) and his ragtag band of bounty hunters.

The potent opening scene — during which it’s only gradually clear that canon fire, not lightning, is sporadically illuminating the nighttime sky — details the standard operational procedure: Will earns the confidence of an elderly woman housing runaway slaves, then alerts the bounty hunters to ride in and capture their human prey.

Burrell is so confident of his control over Will and Marcus that he sends the pair up north to locate Nate (Tishuan Scott), an ex-slave with a price on his head. Will and Marcus are supposed to lure Nate back south, where Burrell awaits, with a lie about Nate’s dying brother wanting a final reunion.

The longer the three travelers are together during an extended trek, however, the more Will comes to view Nate — a gruff but decent fellow first seen digging graves for Union soldiers — as the father figure he never had. Trouble is, even after Marcus departs the narrative, Will remains reluctant to betray Burrell, who has promised to track down and kill the youngster if he doesn’t complete his assignment.

Filmed entirely on various picturesque locations throughout Texas, “The Retrieval” unfolds at a pace neither brisk nor dawdling, giving sufficient screen time to the credible development of wary respect between Will and Nate, but also allowing for dramatically effective detours along the way. Arguably the film’s most conventionally exciting highlight: The three travelers, always mindful that the ongoing war is never far off, inadvertently wander into a full-blown battle (which Eska stages, thrillingly, with real-life Civil War reenactors).

Scott received a well-deserved SXSW jury award for his subtly calibrated performance. But Sanders, a remarkably expressive newcomer, more than holds his own in their scenes together, and generates sympathy during solo moments when Will struggles with his conscience.

John adroitly conveys the self-loathing that percolates just below the surface of Marcus’ toxic misanthropy. And Oberst is all the more chilling by playing Burrell as a blunt-spoken pragmatist who appears to believe that, given the circumstances, he’s a reasonably fair individual.

Yasu Tanida’s sharp, evocative lensing and the period-appropriate score by Matthew Wiedermann and Jon Attwood are just two elements that give “The Retrieval” a technical polish that belies any budgetary restraints. Some observers are bound to make much of the pic’s passing similarities to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” But film buffs with longer memories may be more inclined to note visual and tonal echoes of Peter Fonda’s  “The Hired Hand,” particularly during a closing scene that has the same melancholy effect Fonda achieved in his classic 1971 Western.

The Retrieval

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 16, 2013. Running time: 93 MIN.

A Doki-Diki Films production in association with Arts + Labor and Sixth Street Films. Produced by Jason Wehling, Jacob Equivel. Executive producers, Alan Berg, Tom Borders, Sibyl Avery Jackson.

Directed, written, edited by Chris Eska. Camera (color), Yasu Tanida; music, Matthew Wiedermann, Jon Attwood; production designer, Caroline Karlen; costume designer, Lily Walker; sound, Eric Friend; associate producers, Scott Colquitt, Jeff Marrow.

With: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Bill Oberts Jr., Christine Horn, Alfono Freeman, Jonathan Brooks, Raven LeDeatte.

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