May 10, 2021

RUNAWAY TRAIN (1986)

Well, here it is: Cannon Films’ lone, extremely rare, legitimately good film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adorer of the Cannon legacy and much of their output, but I know when to call a duck a duck. Original one-sheets for Death Wish 3 and Invasion U.S.A. will be thrown into the crematorium with me when I finally check out of this place, but I could never with a straight face say that either of them are “good.” Runaway Train is, even if “a Golan-Globus production” just happens to precede it. With a script originated/inspired by Seven Samurai’s Akira Kurosawa, two powerful performances from its leading men (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts), and a great deal of thematic weight attached to what otherwise would be viewed as a high-concept and broad action/thriller, Runaway Train strived to be more than just a piece of shallow entertainment, achieving nominations for three Academy Awards, as well as for the Palme d’Or for director Andrei Konchalovskiy.

To modern audiences, Runaway Train will feel like a case of been there/done that, even though it was one of the first to do what it did. (1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three takes that honor). Though 2010’s Unstoppable, starring Denzel and directed by Scott, claims to be based on a true story, the similarities between the two films can’t be denied — right down to the threat of the train derailing at a nearby chemical plant, threatening to spread toxic waste radiation across a circumference of alarming square mileage. Both even maintain the old and somewhat broken down man (Voight, Washington) caught up in the conflict with a young, somewhat cocky punk (Roberts, Pine) forced to work together, lest they become train goo. But where Unstoppable's leading men eventually become partners and equals, each walking away from the conflict with a mutual respect, that ain’t the case in Runaway Train. Because, again, it wants to be more than just a slice of escapism. It wants to be more than audiences wondering, “How will they stop that train??” (I’ll also throw out that Denzel and Scott additionally collaborated on the Taking of Pelham remake — these guys love trains!)

On the most basic thematic level, the runaway train on which Oscar “Manny” Manhem (Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Roberts) find themselves doubles as their fate. Former inmates of Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison, the freshly escaped cons with freedom in their eyes may have eluded their captors, but they have not eluded their fates. The choices they’ve made in life set their course into action — whether behind the walls of Stonehaven, or within the cars of their runaway train, their fates are inescapable, and it’s there they’ll have no choice but to confront the men they are and the lives they chose to lead.

Good performances in film aren’t rare; excellent performances are; but when an actor disappears, chameleon-like, into a role, all while leaving the audience unsettled and intimidated, that hardly ever happens. Look at Daniel Day-Lewis did it in Gangs of New York, Tom Hardy in Bronson, Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting (hey, trains!), but before all of them, Voight did it with Runaway Train. Oscar Manheim is a son of a bitch. He’s such a son of a bitch that Stonehaven’s warden ordered him permanently welded into his prison cell for three straight years. He’s such a son of a bitch that this same warden tries to off him via another prisoner saddled with a shiv. And Voight sinks his brown and metal teeth into the role with a dedication and fierceness seldom seen, nearly unrecognizable with his droopy eye and southern-fried fu manchu.

And then there’s Eric Roberts in an early effort which sees him in a rare role where he plays a good guy, albeit a prison escapee. He’s mouthy, energetic, and somewhat frantic — like a wild pup getting a taste of freedom after being kenneled for too long: manic and unrestrained, wanting to go everywhere and sniff everything. With only three months of time left yet to serve, his last-second decision to accompany Manny on his prison escape says a lot about the kind of person he is. He’s impulsive and brash, but also kind of a romantic, which to audiences translates as an innocent.

Unfortunately where Runaway Train loses momentum is with the inclusion of the character played by Rebecca De Mornay, who according to the credits plays “Sara,” even though I’d swear her name is never spoken aloud. It’s less that her performance comes off weak (even though it does), especially when sharing scenes with Voight and Roberts, and it’s not just that she’s saddled with the worst dialogue the film has to offer (“There’s a miracle coming, I feel it in my heart!”), but her character ultimately proves pretty useless. The name “Sara” notwithstanding, she’s actually an on-screen representation of the audience. Her job is to either provide exposition for whomever in the theater seats might be running a little behind, or to echo the thoughts that audience members are likely having. She’s there to whisper into their ears so they know how they should be feeling about the dynamic between the characters. And in a kind of ham-fisted way, her presence — that of “innocence” — is supposed to manufacture conflict for those personnel in the train station (Kenneth McMillan; The Thing’s T.K. Carter) with whether or not they should be trying very hard to make sure the train doesn’t derail. Had her character been wiped entirely from the story, leaving just the two cons behind on the train to face each other’s personalities, all while the train personnel grappled with whether or not the lives of two prisoners (i.e., bad guys) are worth it, both the duality of nature and the additional complication of the choice of crashing or saving the train would have felt more intimate and suspenseful: let the men die and avoid catastrophe, or take the risk and save their lives, even if they are “bad” men.

That aside, Runaway Train is still an excellent ride, anchored by excellent performances, wonderfully hectic and documentary-like cinematography by Alan Hume, and, somehow, direction by Konchalovsky that comes off both assured and chaotic. John P. Ryan, who played an array of bastards both villainous and heroic during his period as a stable actor for Cannon Films, turns in a sinister supporting performance as Warden Ranken, offering an additional threat on top of the one the cons are trapped within, and which is hurtling 90 miles an hour toward doom.

Cannon Films may not have made many “good” films during their tenure, but they’ve made at least one that was certainly excellent. For all the Wildey Magnum bullets that Paul Kersey fires into punks, or rocket launchers that Matt Hunter aims at Russian commie terrorists, none of them pack the punch of Voight’s performance, Konchalovsky’s direction, or an out-of-control Runaway Train.

May 7, 2021

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

A Michael Bay film about the Benghazi attack and subsequent death of Ambassador Chris Stevens sounds like one of those things that shouldn't work. In a satirical skit about the dumbing down of America, a character would joke about wanting to go see Michael Bay's new film, "9/11: The Movie," in which a CGI American flag destroys every evil terrorist from sea to shining sea. And while that's perhaps a bit unfair, it's also kind of not, because this is the reputation Michael Bay has created for himself, all while working for the same Hollywood system that's entirely open to taking a real-world tragedy and turning it into profitable exploitation. We've had Twin Tower films, Osama Bin Laden assassination films, hijacked 9/11 plane films, and with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, we have the Benghazi film – the worst terrorist attack the United States has suffered since September 11, 2001. And the mere idea of Michael Bay announcing such a film was the stuff of cynical eye-rolls and immediate dismissals.

In Hollywood, there’s an understanding that directors with prestige are, and generally should be, the ones to bring such real-life tragedies to life; i.e., Steven Spielberg with Schinder’s List or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. Though whether or not such true-life horrors becoming fodder for movie theaters is a tasteless move is constantly up for debate, but if they’re going to be made, it’s best they’re helmed by people with a history for quality output and adept at presenting real human drama.

Using his money-printing Transformers series as clout, Michael Bay – the director of five films (so far) about robots turning into other robots and fighting evil robots from outer space (all while destroying Chicago) – elbowed his way to the front of the line to helm 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Though it does contain the same kind of violent, operatic destruction for which Michael Bay has been known since his directorial debut, it also contains something a bit unexpected and absolutely welcome: a bit of restraint from the director of Bad Boys 2, as well as a bit of maturity.

Make no mistake – though screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Strain) was the one to adapt the nonfiction book by Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Soldiers, the script still manages to fall victim to the usual Michael Bay-isms. Though based on very real men, characterization falls by the wayside. Played by lesser known actors (which works to the film's benefit), each soldier is given a modicum of background and some personality quirks to differentiate who everyone is, but except for lead soldier (as presented by the film) Jack Silva, played by The Office's John Krasinski, the men's identities are tough to distinguish. 'Boon' (also The Office's David Denman) reads books. 'Tanto' (Pablo Schreiber) cracks jokes. 'Rone' (James Badge Dale) seems to really like war. These could very well be close to the real men, but their translation to the screen filters out much of their needed characterization. Bay, to his credit, does manage to include a handful of scenes in which the men either talk about or communicate via Skype with their wives and children (one of these instances, taking place at a fast good drive-through, is actually one of the best and most human moments Bay has ever directed), but once shit hits the fan and everyone is covered in soot, it's legitimately confusing at times to see through the black faces and heavy beards and figure out just who is who at any moment.

And again, being that this is a Michael Bay film, scenes striving toward drama can border on the overwrought, overly patriotic, and emotionally manipulative. Silva hasn't been at the annex for five minutes before he's sitting alone on his bed and thinking about his family in flashback form. We can fault a somewhat clunky script (which sports no less than six sarcastic uses of the word "fun") containing some truly heinous dialogue, as well as an odd amount of jokes that never seem to gel with the very serious conflict in which the soldiers soon find themselves engaged. (I wasn't there so I can only speculate, but if the real soldiers made at least half these jokes during the actual firefights, then I am speechless.)

Still, the shortcomings of the script are counteracted by Bay's extravagant yet restrained – and at times, downright graceful – direction. His quick-cutting style is severely dialed down, replaced by gorgeous sweeping exterior shots of the conflict as it's unfolding. He also resurrects his “bomb POV” shot from 2001’s recklessly stupid Pearl Harbor, in which the camera tracks with a bomb released by its aircraft and follows it down, watching it whirl through the air until landing near its intended target. It’s less Bay cribbing from himself and more his acknowledgment that whether here or abroad, war has to begin and end somewhere – and that includes conflicts we understand, like World War II, or those still mired in questions and controversy, much like our unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cinematography by Dion Beebee eschews Bay's normal living painting style in favor of ground-zero witnessing, relying on scurrying handheld cameras to put the audience directly in the middle of the fight. It's been done before, of course, but not by Bay, and seeing him employ its use forces you to examine him as not just a director, but a filmmaker.

Did you see what I just said?? 

It's a shame that 13 Hours didn't do well financially at the box office, as not only was this a film that more people needed to see, but it just seems like one more nail in the coffin for directors leaving their comfort zone to make something "important" before heading back to their franchises and brand names that print money while killing brain cells. Better than your typical Michael Bay fare, but not in the same league as other relevant modern films The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, or United 93, 13 Hours presents a refreshingly Michael Bay-lite take on a very true story. As to be expected, the action scenes are phenomenal (while thankfully managing to skirt political agenda), a somewhat clunky script and uneven tone are what holds back 13 Hours from the kind of prestige its colleagues have gone on to earn. Removing the mindset that this was a true and horrific thing which really took place and examining it only as a piece of entertainment, 13 Hours makes for a thrilling, visceral, and unrelenting experience and perhaps even one of the best action films of the 2010s.

May 5, 2021

APT PUPIL (1999)


Stephen King has seen more adaptations of his written body of work than any other writer living or dead, except maybe for Bram Stoker, whose novel, Dracula, has been adapted for a literal, accurate, and confirmed figure of ninety bajillion times. As such, among these King adaptations, some are classic, some are decent, and some are best forgotten. His 1982 four-novella collection, Different Seasons, contained the original stories that would later be adapted into Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and then Apt Pupil. The fourth story, The Breathing Method, is in the works under the direction of Sinister’s Scott Derrickson, so the Different Seasons adaptation game is looking like a clean sweep. Not bad for one book. (The jealous author in me weeps bitterly.)

Until Derrickson’s adaptation sees release, Apt Pupil remains the dark horse adaptation of the book. Having been released to mixed-to-positive reviews back in 1999 (and mired in controversies/production difficulties), and directed by a post-Usual Suspects Bryan Singer (the X-Men series, Valkyrie), Apt Pupil has always remained just under the radar in the King world. Headlined by Brad Renfro (The Client), who died at the age of 25 in 2008, and whose death was overshadowed by the passing of Heath Ledger one week later, Apt Pupil presents a young, well-to-do high school student and all-around sociopath Todd Bowden, who deduces that an elderly member of his community, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is a former Nazi living in hiding under an alias. Bowden, fascinated with Nazi atrocities (or perhaps just atrocity in general), first blackmails Denker before cautiously befriending him, wanting nothing more than to hear all of Denker’s vile holocaust stories. And Denker, at first backed into a corner, slowly begins to spin the arrangement to his advantage, until the two get to a point where both are manipulating each other. As such, only one will likely walk away.

As can be expected by a King work, Apt Pupil is very dark – not in terms of gory visuals, but more its tone and its subject matter. There’s no blacker stain in the world than the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War 2; even without the grainy black and white photographs of stacked bodies and emaciated figures, the mere discussion of it is still upsetting enough that Apt Pupil presents as a somber and by-design upsetting experience. Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce don’t back away from the darkness of the story’s subject matter, although it does update certain aspects, such as its much more explosive finale (to be expected in 1999’s immediate post-Columbine era).

Ian McKellen is chilling in his role as the runaway Nazi, whose villainous turn almost laughs in the face of his more well-known, and by comparison, lovable, take on the X-Men series’ Magneto (ironically, a survivor of the holocaust). But in a way, it’s Renfro as Bowden who walks away as the film’s bigger sociopath, and that’s because he wears the façade of a sixteen-year-old kid in a varsity jacket and has a pretty girlfriend on his arm, who society would dictate has the perfect life, and hence, is no one to worry about. Renfro finds a way through all that and presents an angry, confused, and severely psychotic kid for whom more teachers would write a letter of recommendation than recommend him for psychological counseling. (Sadly, Renfro battled with drug addiction throughout his 20’s, nearly obtaining the lead in Freddy vs. Jason before a bizarre incident in which he stole a yacht cost him the role.)

On the triple tier Stephen King adaptation scale, Apt Pupil rests comfortably in the upper-middle ranks. The lead performances and Singer’s direction are top notch, while the screenplay can sometimes meander, with its neutered ending sacrificing much of the impact of King’s original story. Still, it’s certainly one of the better King adaptations, with immense talent on both sides of the camera. Sadly, it’s also more relevant in the modern climate than it’s ever been before.

May 3, 2021

SYNCHRONICITY (2015)

There is one thing that all time travel movies have in common, and that’s this: none of them actually make sense. That’s the paradox of the time travel film: though each goes out of its way to carefully explain the rules and possible ramifications of time travel, at the end of the day, none of them make sense. Putting aside that time travel, in reality, doesn’t actually exist, and therefore can’t be held up to any existing rigorous scientific criteria, each one featuring an individual traveling back or ahead in time in order to fix a conflict or know the unknowable is, honestly, just making shit up as it goes. It’s examining what is necessary to its own plot, making sure it’s arguably sensible in narrative form, and jettisoning the rest. And honestly, that’s fine. Even the most historically accurate film leans on fiction. Biopics fudge a detail now and then. Dinosaurs have been brought back to life, people. WITH FROG DNA. It’s fine. If those films are allowed to play with reality, the time travel film is certainly allowed the same consideration. But it’s when the time traveling and its ramifications get lost in its own plot that it can get a little frustrating.

From a technical standpoint alone, Synchronicity is beautifully made. Heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, right down to the incredible synth-based score by Ben Lovett, but also containing bouts of TRON, Dark City, and other titles of the cyberpunk era, no one can say that Synchronicity isn’t audacious as hell. Certainly the first cyberpunk time-travel film-noir romance of its kind, Synchronicity has been brought to life with a very assured and very confident hand by writer/director Jacob Gentry (The Signal—2007, not 2014). From the opening sequence alone, the audience is immediately transported into a time and environment in which they have had zero previous experience. In the same way Blade Runner opens in a very foreign cityscape, replete with merging cultures and disturbing amounts of futuristic gadgetry, Synchronicity, too, plummets the audience directly into the thick of an unusual and dangerous experiment. Who are these three men? What are they doing? Is this sanctioned or have they gone rogue? What’s with this awesome music?

Chad McNight as Jim Beale does admirable work as a man obsessed—first with his potentially world-changing experiments, but later on with the mysterious and beautiful Abby, who enters into his life seemingly at random until that randomness is called into question. He spends much of the film frantic, backed into a corner, and doubting everything—this mostly works for him, but sometimes it doesn’t. Brianne Davis, however, as the noir-required femme fatale, doesn’t quite grasp what she’s supposed to be doing. Her performance as the untrustworthy siren of Jim’s growing infatuation is largely inconsistent; her abilities to emote simply through facial expressions certainly helps in establishing the mystery of her character, but this is too easily counteracted during most of her dialogue scenes, where her hesitance with the role is all too palpable. AJ Bowen, Canada’s version of a young Vincent D’Onofrio, does expectedly fine work as Jim’s co-experimenter, Chuck, who finds himself swept up in Jim’s increasingly complicated life (lives?) as he struggles to save his friend.

Plus this thing’s got Michael Ironside!  He can make your head explode just by WILLING it! I’m not even talking about Scanners, but in REAL LIFE.

Synchronicity stumbles the most (but not doing any permanent damage) in its handling of the actual time travel aspect—considering this is being sold as a time travel film, that understandably sounds alarming. Synchronicity throws a lot at its audience, expecting them to grasp as many breadcrumbs as it can as the film barrels through its narrative. Once one timeline becomes two, which is which, who is who, and wtf all become lodged in your brain, making for a daring but frustrating experience.

Despite these flaws, there is something impressive and impulsively thought provoking about Synchronicity that to outright dismiss the film because of these flaws would be an utter crime. There’s a vagueness, perhaps purposely so, to many of the film’s aspects—like Klaus Meisner’s mysterious company, the future time period in which it’s taking place, the location of the city where it all unfolds—leaving a wake of haze wafting over everything like it’s a dream. The more scientifically minded viewer is going to want to break down the plot’s events to determine who is who at that time, what has changed in this scene being depicted for a second time, what possible implications are to come, but I’m not so sure Synchronicity was designed for that.  Like so many other genre films, time travel or not, the crux of the story is based on Jim and Abby’s growing relationship. Does she love him? Can she be trusted? Will Jim wise the fuck up? Around this dynamic the rest of the film has been wrapped, and whether or not the timeline of events and the science of time traveling makes sense becomes window dressing.

It’s simple, really: if you become engaged by Jim and Abby’s plight, then Synchronicity will prove a rewarding experience. If you’re here for the time travel, then you might find yourself checking your watch.

Taking a page from the book of Blade Runner (and it's five million versions), Synchronicity is impressive to look at. As is demanded by all future-set science-fiction films, the landscape of Synchronicity is cold, sterile, institutional, and impeccably clean. The film leans on blue hues and bright whites because of this, but while also adhering to the dark and shadow of classic film noir. And yeah man, I love this music. The synth-based score by Ben Lovett lovingly skips back in time to the golden age of Carpenter and Vangelis, driving Synchronicity forward, perhaps even atoning for its storytelling flaws in the same way that Daft Punk's masterpiece of a score for TRON: Legacy aids in propelling it from mediocrity to an incredible visual and audio experience.

Synchronicity gets a cautious but still enthusiastic recommendation, if for nothing more than its ambitiousness. How its story will grab you is tough to predict. It's a wonderful technical experience, providing beautiful visuals and an equally beautiful if slightly melancholy musical score. For those longing for more San Angeles ambience, look no further: it's easy to believe that while Deckard is hunting down replicants in the rainy night, just a few blocks over, the events of Synchronicity are unfolding in not just one but two separate timelines. And like Blade Runner, perhaps it will take some time before Synchronicity's story can be truly appreciated.

May 1, 2021

TEASER: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) ON NETWORK TELEVISION

 

I've been playing around with video editing during lockdown and this is my newest harebrained idea. 

File under fan edit - an opening to George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) as it may have looked if it premiered on network television in the late '70s or early '80s, similar to NBC's premiere of Halloween and CBS's airing of The Exorcist. I'm planning on creating the entire broadcast using a VHS rip of the movie and "original" commercials and TV spots - kinda like a standard definition grindhouse experience.

One question remains, however: if I embark on assembling an entire broadcast, do I make it as genuine looking as I can by...gasp...editing it for content? Silencing the profanity and, more egregious...cutting out the gore effects? Could I really do that to something as majestically splatter-filled as Dawn of the Dead?

Questions like these plague my very existence.

Apr 30, 2021

BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2006)

Rightfully so, 1996’s Scream gets a lot of credit for being the first post-’80s slasher craze to acknowledge sub-genres tropes, stereotypes, and mythologies that had spent a decade+ accumulating and solidifying. That it managed to do all this while also being a solid slasher that could stand on its own feet was a magical feat achieved by director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Ten years later would come the release of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a film festival darling that took horror audiences by storm. Following in the same footsteps, Behind the Mask was another loving ode to the slasher films of yesteryear, but this time being more on the nose than its hip ‘90s predecessor. Where Scream would occasionally say the name “Freddy” or have Halloween playing on a television in the background during a party, Behind the Mask would actually join all of those film franchises together in one universe while also existing within it, and it does so by looping in another horror element that would postdate Scream by three years: the faux-documentary gimmick as reinvigorated by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

Shot to look like a documentary, Behind the Mask examines its subject, Leslie Vernon, a serial killer in training who strives to be as well known and infamous as his inspirations Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, “Mike and Chucky.” If Christopher Guest had applied his mockumentary forte to the slasher genre, it would look a lot like Behind the Mask. It’s a parody, a satire, an ode, a dark comedy, a light comedy (sort of), and an old school slasher flick all in one. Its from this nutso combination where it derives most of its strength, but which also leaves it feeling somewhat at odds with its nature during the final act.

Right off the bat, it’s obviously a slasher fan’s dream to see the different worlds of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Child’s Play (and more, I’m sure) existing in the same landscape. The very streets on which Nightmare and Halloween were shot appear in cameos (along with a very brief appearance from Kane Hodder, aka Jason in several Friday the 13th sequels, as the newest and creepiest resident of beleaguered Nancy Thompson’s former home). Robert Englund plays a small part very much in the Dr. Loomis mold of Halloween (whose character name, Doc Halloran, is a direct nod to The Shining) with Poltergeist's Zelda Rubinstein also appearing in a pint-sized role as a pint-sized librarian. 

As you can see, writer David J. Stieve and co-writer/director Scott Glosserman are wearing their inspirations and it results in an often clever and often amusing horror/comedy that is proudly affiliating itself with an era and specific franchises birthed during that era that had previously been written off as silly and dismissible. Scream clearly adores Halloween but merely mentions other infamous titles matter-of-factly; Behind the Mask embraces every bloody installment of every bloody franchise with equal aplomb without passing judgment on those titles not as critically well regarded as others. (Of course, I would never take away Craven’s desire to include a line in Scream about the first Nightmare being good and scary “but the rest sucked.”)

Behind the Mask loses a little steam during the final act as it drops the documentary approach and switches to a straight narrative, losing much of the quirky humor that derived from said approach. Don’t get me wrong, the film remains smart, as the film’s remaining victims look to the rules established by the slasher genre to figure out how they can survive the night, but without the more amusing humor, it then feels like Behind the Mask is taking the events it had spent most of its time sending up just a little too seriously. It’s obvious this was by design, cemented by one scene in which one of our supporting characters meets his bloody end at Leslie’s hands, but who tries to reason with him by telling him over and over, “Come on man, it’s me,” as if suggesting their prior friendship should be enough to neutralize Leslie’s murderous wants and goals. Well, it’s not, and it’s actually a really conflicting scene, because up to this point, Leslie had been a fun, well-mannered, and even lovable character whose goals of which the audience was very much aware, but whom they all liked, anyway. With him now being a dedicated mass murder, the change in his character is as abrupt as the change in tone. Again, this was intended and not some kind of accident, but upon my first viewing of Behind the Mask fifteen years ago, I felt conflicted about it, and I still feel conflicted today. And if there’s one thing a slasher shouldn’t be, it’s conflicting.

Despite that, Behind the Mask is an easy recommendation, a solid addition to the slasher sub-genre, and a love letter to the genre as a whole. Fun cameos, respectable performances, and some decent (but restrained) gore gags only add to its enjoyment. Glosserman has been talking up a sequel for years, and like all of Leslie’s murderous and masked colleagues, hopefully he can transcend from one-hit wonder and cross over into successful franchise territory.

Apr 28, 2021

THE RETRIEVAL (2013)

It's 1864, and a young boy named Will (Ashton Sanders) works with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), on behalf of a group of bounty hunters, in locating runaway slaves and reporting their whereabouts so that they may be returned to their slaveholders. Will and Marcus, in order to do this, earn the trust of their targets and divert them to an agreed-upon place so the slaves may be taken captive and returned. What makes Will and Marcus so easy to trust is that they themselves are former slaves, operating under the guise of also being on the run. By the time their targets realize they have been had, they are already back in chains. On one particular assignment, the pair are tasked with locating a freed slave named Nate (Tishuan Scott) in order to return him, but after locating him, Will soon finds himself gravitating toward this perfect stranger, coming to first confide in and then depend on him in a way that the fatherless boy had never experienced. During their perilous time in the wilderness, Nate saves the boy's life, and then later, Will saves his, elevating their bond to staggering new heights. Soon Will's task comes into conflict with how he feels toward Nate and he finds that he must face a very difficult choice.

In an interview with journalist Matt Fagerholm for RogerEbert.com, actor Tishuan Scott (who plays Nate) expressed a "dislike of history" in his youth, citing that African-American culture had been too easily summarized merely by the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. In his eyes, exactly one hundred years between 1863's Emancipation Proclamation and 1963's civil rights movements was missing from the history books relating to the African-American experience. It has only become recent that tales of the African-American struggle, from the brutally honest with Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave to the satiric and exploitative with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained to HBO's recent Lovecraftian/Jim Crow mash-up Lovecraft Country, are finally being told. Released within the shadow of 12 Years a Slave lies the little seen film The Retrieval, a story told not just from the African-American experience, but one that sidesteps more obvious approaches in favor of offering an extremely unique and uplifting story. It's also highly superior to those two prominent titles.

Though The Retrieval is not based on any specific event, the film is still firmly entrenched in a very real history. The characters of Will and Nate may have never met, bonded, and parted under extremely emotional circumstances, but the idea of former slaves being forced to root out their fellow man (and being paid to do so) sadly sounds like the kind of additionally awful thing that would be occurring within an already awful and very turbulent period in history. Nearly unfolding in real time, The Retrieval offers up suspense from the very first minute that Will and Marcus cross paths with Nate. Those bounty hunters for hire know exactly what they have been tasked to do, as does the audience, who also knows that this is something they have already done, and are willing to do again. As Will and Nate begin to grow closer, the former yearning for a father he never knew and the latter mourning for his deceased child, the bond that forms between them is as equally heartfelt and satisfying as it is heartbreaking, because the audience knows there new friendship can only end in one of two ways: either Will and Marcus risk their lives in letting Nate remain free, or Nate will end up back in shackles following their many shared campfires in which their greatest fears and regrets were shared and a mutual understanding and respect was forged.

An intimate story propelled by only a handful of performances, it's easy to see why Scott's performance as Nate has been as celebrated and awarded as it was. Same goes for Sanders as the young Will; at no point do either of their performances come off as disingenuous or self-aware. Noted horror/cult actor Bill Oberst Jr., who plays a minor role as Burrell, one of the bounty hunters, also offers strong work. The easy way out would have been to present Burrell as obviously vicious - the archetypal evil white man - but instead Burrell comes across as sympathetic, and even caring where Will is concerned, but this calm demeanor is not to be trusted. He is on assignment just as Will and Marcus are on assignment, and his ideology isn't the thing that's driving him. Ultimately what he has been tasked to do, and what he has tasked Will and Marcus to do, is evil, but to him there's no evil in it. In his mind, he believes what he's doing is just, and the money he is being paid serves as affirmation.

The Retrieval is an uplifting story set during an ugly time, and to echo Scott's thoughts, the world, and this country especially, needs to immerse itself in the history that it has gotten too used to denying, because however ugly and humiliating that history may be, it also contains a plethora of untold stories that need to be told - not just to confront this history, but to gleam from it any saving graces in which the human spirit was not just preserved, but flourished, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Considering this is filmmaker Chris Eska's second film, and shot solely in exteriors using available light, the film is consistently confidently captured – one that deviates between night and day, lit only by campfires, torches, and the southern sun. Whether by design or by happy accident, background shots looked to have their colors muted, so much that at times the sky looks like a faded photograph. Same goes for fields of wheat and dead grass, which alternate from amber brown to stark white. All of the film takes place in the great outdoors, and in the midst of war, so rippling rivers, pelting rain, blowing wind, and the distant cannon fire trickle out through. The pretty musical score by composer Matthew Wiedemann and Yellow 6 alternates between commanding the screen's use of natural landscapes and lying under the surface to complement the more emotional actions and exchanges.

Critics and audiences spent most of 2014 being enamored by 12 Years a Slave - and rightfully so - but one wonders if that were maybe at the expense of The Retrieval, a film that was sadly little seen outside of film festivals. Though both films are set in the same places and during the same times, their stories are told in vastly different ways. 12 Years a Slave is an extremely powerful piece of filmmaking, but it doesn't share the uniqueness of the story to which The Retrieval can lay claim. Far less brutal and far more hopeful, The Retrieval is a celebration of the human spirit and one's own belief in the bigger picture. Flesh expires; hope does not.