The Retrieval review: the emotional legacy of American slavery

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The Retrieval green light

Deceptively simple and deeply cutting. A remarkable little film, a marvel of American indie filmmaking and of stories typically overlooked.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

So deceptively simple. And so deeply cutting. The year is 1864. Skirting American Civil War battlefields, and with, naturally, no notion that the end of the war is in sight, is 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders), who manages to survive as a free young black man, barely, by working, with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), for a white bounty hunter, Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), who retrieves runaway slaves from the North and returns them to their “rightful” owners in the South. But their latest assignment, to ensnare Nate (Tishuan Scott: Computer Chess) for Burrell, has been a challenge for Will. For while Marcus is brusque and self-serving — or is he, too, only doing what he has to in order to survive? — Nate’s apparent curtness soon gives way to a sort of gruff affection for the boy. As they travel south under false pretenses, having convinced Nate that his brother is ill and wants to see him before he dies, the tentative relationship developing between the fatherless boy and the at-sea Nate, who has lost so many people he cares for, threatens Will’s resolve to turn the older man over to Burrell. Writer-director Chris Eska, shooting in Texas woodlands that approximate, with a sparse wintry grimness of low sunlight and bare trees, 19th-century Mason-Dixon borderlands, has created a stark portrait of emotional reserve in which the more tender of human sensibilities have been sacrificed to hard practicalities, and now stumble across a thawing social landscape that is unfamiliar and may be able to nurture kindness again. This festival favorite film — Tishuan Scott won a well-deserved Special Jury Prize for Acting at 2013’s SXSW — presents a bitter array of promises broken (though not intentionally so) by war, and families broken (most definitely intentionally so) by slavery, and is in many ways an allegory for black American culture in the 21st century, of fathers unjustly stolen away and diminished opportunities for those left behind. This is a remarkable little film, a marvel of American indie filmmaking and of stories typically overlooked. See it.

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