Overcoming one's fears is a huge and reoccurring theme in the horror genre. Whether directly or indirectly, our protagonists will only find victory if they learn to confront their tormentor head on, with eyes up. In A Nightmare on Elm Street for instance, Nancy literally vanquishes her demon by saying, "You're nothing." In Citadel, this theme is the forefront of our protagonist's conflict. Quite literally, he must overcome his fears...or die.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his wife, Joanne (Amy Shiels), are moving out of their apartment. With Joanne ready to give birth any day, it would seem the time has come to vacate and find a bigger or nicer place to raise their daughter. Out of nowhere, a faceless group of hoods attacks Joanne, beating her and stabbing her in the stomach with a syringe. She is rushed to the hospital where she falls into a coma, and her baby is surgically removed, luckily having survived. Tommy, because of his limited means, has no choice but to move into a ghetto duplex in the middle of a wasteland sporting signs promising a "regeneration project." The sign itself is so worn and faded that it's obvious this project is not happening any time soon - if at all. And so this complex remains tattered and torn, with eviscerated cars littering the parking lot.
In the wake of Joanne's attack, Tommy is left with a terrible case of agoraphobia. Leaving his house is tantamount to torture, and he can only do so after coaxing himself out with his eyes squeezed shut. Self-help groups don't seem to be helping at all, and he has no one in which to confide except for Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), a nurse at the hospice center where Joanne has been for nine comatose months. After Tommy euthanizes Joanne by releasing her from her life support, Marie tries to help Tommy regain control of his life. But soon, familiar faceless hoods make an appearance, intent on finishing what they started. They kidnap baby Elsa, and the multitudes of missing child fliers hanging all over town suggests that Elsa is just one of many taken by these mysterious figures. With the help of an eccentric priest (James Cosmo) and his blind adopted son, Danny (Jake Wilson), Tommy must enter his former high-rise tenement building where the hoods seem to live, take back his child, and put an end to their terror for good.
Somewhere between all the early buzz and positive reviews, and my having seen the film for myself, I saw the plot loosely described somewhere as a man being terrorized by a bunch of hooded youths. That instantly bummed me out. I wanted something creepy and unnatural. Ghosts or demons or freaks or something. I didn't want a bunch of annoying mall teens.
Still, I watched the film for myself, figuring it would be good for at least one scare or two, what with all the high marks it received during its film festival run.
I was pleasantly surprised. And creeped out. Turns out that plot description I saw elsewhere was wrong. The figures were hooded, yes, and they were definitely of a kid height...but that's about where our antagonists stop being kids. They are something much more dangerous and terrifying.
With film, but within the horror genre especially, you are asked to suspend your disbelief. But we're pretty willing to, so long as the film has earned it. Citadel asks you to refrain from asking hundreds of questions you probably should be, and which you'd be right to. Being as vague and non-spoilery as possible, those might be:
"How is it this priest knows what he knows and never told anyone?"
"How is it this building filled with these little monsters has sat for so long and no one has done anything about it, or even noticed?"
"How is it we readily accept Tommy not calling the police whenever he is terrorized because, according to him, 'they won't come here.' "
There are many more of these types of questions that might pop up as you watch, but all of them are rendered irrelevant for one simple reason: because the film is too well made and well acted to have to answer to these questions. Sometimes it's better not to explain everything to death. Sometimes it's better to just place your trust in the filmmakers that you're being told everything you need to know - no more, no less.
Strong performances by Bernard as Tommy and especially James Cosmo ("Game of Thrones," "Sons of Anarchy") as the unnamed priest propel the film forward, hurtling us through the moments where lesser actors would allow us to stop and question what it is we're seeing and noting why the vagueness of certainly details might be a weakness.
The script by Ciaran Foy is simple but clever, and at times feels even personal. And that's because it is. Foy himself suffered an unwarranted assault as a youth, perpetrated by a bunch of hooded miscreants who beat him and stabbed him in the throat with a syringe. It left Foy a shell-shocked, suffering agoraphobic who never found the strength to leave his home until he was accepted for film school.
Considering its budget, the make-up and visual effects are astounding. You can't really know how good of a job the the filmmakers did until you watch the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD, which is refreshingly informative, and not just your usual glad-handing and blanket congratulatory praise for every single person involved in the production.
There's an underlying warning about a society's and/or government's disregardance of lower income areas. We, as that society, sometimes like to pretend those areas don't exist and that they're not a problem. But the longer they sit and fester, the worse they will become. Their poverty will lead to desperation, which will lead to crime. Children will be born into this environment and grow in a household where crime is perfectly acceptable, and this wicked cycle will continue. One character describes the tenement building featured in the film as having been "abandoned" - not in the sense that only vagrants live there, and the place is otherwise in shambles, but that at one point whoever was living there was trying to make a life...and it was they who were actually abandoned.
Citadel is original, and surprisingly emotional. And to watch a man confront his fears, quite literally, has never been creepier.