THE RETRIEVAL is not your typical indie film. It’s a film about choices, and coming of age in a difficult time. It’s a film about race, and searching for guidance without a father to lead the way. It’s an epic journey across inhospitable terrain on foot. It’s a beautifully shot, methodically paced rumination on morality in immoral times. It’s also a period drama set just after the emancipation proclamation. Indie films are hard enough to get made, but a period drama? Texas-based writer/director Chris Eska had the idea to make a film not about January 1st, 1863, the day the emancipation proclamation went into effect, but about January 2nd, and six months, one year after. What happened to these men once they were freed, because in many cases, life wasn’t that much better.Against the backdrop of the end of the civil war, THE RETRIEVAL follows two men, Will, a fifteen-year old former slave liberated when his master’s farm was burnt down by the federal, and his uncle Marcus, a smooth-talking opportunist who takes Will under his wing. Their primary occupation is heading over state lines and bringing back runaway slaves, delivering them to their white employer who gives them a cut of the bounty for the stolen property. Will is just old enough to question what they are doing, but with no means to set out on his own, he continues, in hopes of earning enough to head out in search of his father. The movie is as much about Will’s search for a father figure as it is about what actually happens to him. Eska’s confident direction leaves a lot of gaps in the action and dialogue for the audience to do the work and think about the choices the characters are making.Will’s decisions become even more difficult when their next mark, Nate, turns out not to be a runaway slave at all, but a freed man, who is wanted for murder and who is going to be killed upon his delivery. Played brilliantly by Houston-based actor Tishuan Scott, Nate is an honorable man, digging graves for the federals, but he is also, by his own admission, a murder. He even puts a few more down in the moment during the film. That being said, he offers Will the sort of fatherly presence he’s been missing and certainly proves himself again and again a better man than Uncle Marcus. Will convinces Nate to come back with them to see his dying brother, knowing full well Nate’s brother had died two months earlier and the men waiting for Nate meant him nothing but harm. When the travelers stumble across retreat skirmish in the ongoing war, Marcus is shot, leaving Will to deliver Nate by himself.
The acting in the film is phenomenal, and the way Eska lets it play out on screen – the time he gives them to live in the moment, the uncomfortableness we all feel watching Will in this predicament – fills the screen with tension and true drama. Especially admirable is the way the Civil War is handled, as the travelers pass along its edges, seeing a body floating in a river, stumbling upon the remnants of a battlefield. THE RETRIEVAL is a great example of how to do a period film on a budget, because it feels like no expense is spared and yet most of the film is three men walking across fields or through forests.
I had the pleasure of seeing THE RETRIEVAL almost two years ago, before it was finished, and then again at SXSW in 2013, and then again last night. It really is a film that sticks with you because the themes are universal and the filmmaking is flawless. If you are in Austin today, you can see the film with cast and crew in attendance at the Regal Arbor today at 2:50, and the film will be playing throughout the week. This is a great indie film that tries to do more than most and pulls it off.