The Retrieval: SXSW Review
The Civil War-era slave-hunting drama's star Tishuan Scott won the fest's special jury acting award.
Leveraging limited resources to impressive effect, writer-director Chris Eska’s empathetic scripting and well-tuned casting reliably guide The Retrieval’s memorable trajectory. Tishuan Scott’s standout performance will be among the factors propelling the film on to continued festival play, with a modest theatrical release and respectable ancillary also strong possibilities.
Set in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War, the film centers on young teenage Will (Ashton Sanders), who along with his uncle Marcus (Keston John) works for a gang of bounty hunters led by Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), recapturing runaway slaves and tracking down wanted criminals. Without family after his mother’s death and father’s disappearance on a trip to the north, Will is subjected to harsh treatment and frequent exploitation by Marcus, a man in his 30s who’s apparently seen more than his share of trouble.
Unable to safely cross Union lines, Burrell sends Marcus and Will on a mission with the promise of a sizable payout if they bring back freed slave and fugitive murderer Nate (Scott), who’s working for Federal troops digging graves for dead soldiers. After trekking northward for several days, Marcus and Will locate Nate in a Union encampment, persuading him to follow them back to his hometown with a story about his dying brother requesting a visit.
Their journey is beset with peril at nearly every juncture and after Marcus gets killed in the crossfire of a Confederate-Union skirmish, Will continues south with Nate, struggling to keep his secret as he grows to view the older man as a father figure, knowing that Burrell would gladly kill Nate for the bounty if he comes within rifle range.
Shooting almost exclusively outdoors in his native Texas with only the occasional rough-hewn structure and a single battle scene to lend period authenticity, Eska skillfully reallocates resources to manage the frequently complex sequences tracking the characters through a series of inhospitably autumnal landscapes. The small cast allows the filmmakers to minimize distractions and concentrate primarily on character drama, as Will gradually withdraws from Marcus’ abusive influence, drawn in by Nate’s austere, survival-oriented integrity.
As much a coming-of-age experience for Will as it is a coming-to-terms for Nate, Eska leverages these dual themes to resolve the film’s central conflict. Appearing in his first feature, the teenage Sanders portrays Will’s internal struggles with perceptive empathy, but once Nate enters the narrative, it’s Scott’s movie.
Delving into the character with a desperate fervor, Scott’s multifaceted performance incrementally reveals Nate’s emotional torment and yearning for some semblance of redemption. Supporting castmembers are finely etched in briefer scenes impelling Will and Nate toward their ultimate confrontation with Burrell.
With a few labored metaphors and some superficial, coincidental similarities to Django Unchained aside, Eska has crafted an eloquently insightful narrative distilling the lesser recognized conflicts of the Civil War into an intense historical drama. Cinematographer Yasu Tanida’s capably captured visuals and counterintuitive musical compositions by Matt Wiedemann and Jon Attwood put a keen edge on Eska’s distinctive filmmaking.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival
Production companies: Doki-Doki Films, Arts + Labor, Sixth Street Films
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Bill Oberst Jr., Christine Horn
Director-writer: Chris Eska
Producers: Jason Wehling, Jacob Esquivel
Executive producers: Alan Berg, Tom Borders, Sibyl Avery Jackson
Director of photography: Yasu Tanida
Production designer: Caroline Karlen
Editor: Chris Eska
Music: Matt Wiedemann, Jon Attwood
Sales: Chris Eska
No rating, 93 minutes