THE RETRIEVAL is Character Driven Magnificence
The Retrieval is a story set during the Civil War as a boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), and his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), are made to help a gang of bounty hunters find and capture a former slave now free, but a wanted man. The boy struggles with his developing sense of right and wrong as he tries to come to terms with conflicting feelings of loyalty to his uncle and burgeoning respect for the man they have hunted down. The story behind the retrieval is less about the Civil War and issues surrounding it, and much more about the struggles people face as we all try to discover who we are and what we want to stand for.
I don’t know if I have ever seen performances as grounded as those in The Retrieval that also possess such strength and depth. There is power behind every movement and every line, such that the audience becomes so fully engaged that one finds one’s self relating to each character in turn, feeling for each individual’s plight. Complex layers are evident in every character, leaving the viewer with a hefty amount of investment and the rare opportunity to decide for themselves what to take away from each perfomance.
Marcus, though on the surface seems to be little more than an opportunist, is faced with surviving in a new world, one in which he can be paid for services that aid in his own survival. If those services come at the cost of someone else, that really isn’t his concern. Despite initial appearances, he is not completely self serving, which is evident in the fact that he has taken on Will, his nephew, rather than leaving him to poorer circumstances. He is able to justify what he does no only with profit, but also in the fact that the man they are hunting is wanted, meaning he has done something wrong to deserve his fate. Keston John walks the line beautifully, keeping us from ever tipping to far in favor of or hatred of Marcus. Instead, John manages to make the audience see Marcus as a man trying to make his way however he can, while looking out for his family.
Will is a boy caught in the middle, not only of his own internal conflict of right and wrong, but in the conflict between the behaviors displayed by his uncle and those that seem contrary in Nate (Tishuan Scott). New comer to film, Ashton Sanders is striking in his portrayal of Will. It is not just hard to believe, but seemingly impossible that Sanders lists The Retrieval as his first film, though he has been performing on stage since the age of eight. The internal struggles come through heart-achingly clear in the expressions he so beautifully uses to translate what Will is feeling throughout the film. As the conflicts deepen, Sanders’ interpretation brings us to a fever pitch alongside Will and Nate as they try to undo what has been done to both unwitting participants because of the frightful way men treat one another.
Tishuan Scott delivers some of the most stirring performances and scenes in the film. He manages to present Nate as a mystery and makes the character so incredibly captivating that it is impossible not to be drawn in every time he appears on screen. It becomes imperative to know why he was wanted in the first place, as time and time again he proves himself to be a selfless man, the antithesis to Will’s Uncle Marcus. Intrigue rules as one watches the layers fall away around Nate. He becomes more and more vulnerable throughout his journey with Will, until he is laid bare.
Bill Oberst Jr. plays Burrell, the leader of the gang that is intent on capturing Nate. He is the bounty hunter adamant that without the delivery of Nate, Will and Marcus will be killed. There is a western vibe that takes over the screen when Oberst is at the center of a scene than at any other time during the film. His “bad guy” isn’t the loud mouth, yokel version of a western villain. To the contrary, Oberst presents his character in a very calculated, chilling manner. Burrell adds an element of suspense and wickedness that drives the men forward to bring the story to it’s climax.
Along with the stunning performances, the way the film is shot is absolutely exquisite. The sweeping scenes of the landscape made me wonder over and over again how anyone found land that was so untouched to be able to make the shots feel so authentic. The cinematography by Yasu Tanida transports the viewer in to the space with the actors and makes the experience almost transcendent. When shooting the cast, it feels like the camera is looking right in to their souls at times. The talent behind this film is simply extraordinary.
This is the first film that I have seen from writer and director Chis Eska, but it will most certainly not be my last. The team he pulled together to create The Retrieval is superb. Eska’s storytelling leaves nothing to be desired. The characters are intricately constructed; incredibly rich and full of life, beautifully expressing all it’s struggles. The setting is ideal and breathtaking. The story is executed flawlessly, focusing on the human element of the story rather than the war, which becomes a backdrop rather than the central feature.
It’s no surprise that The Retrival has won a plethora of awards, including the Special Jury Prize for Acting for Tishuan Scott at SXSW 2013. All the accolades are well deserved and the recognition the film has received should continue as it is released in New York and beyond.
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