The Retrieval: A Young Slave’s Moral Dilemma During the Civil War

The Retrieval

Runs Fri., April 11–Thurs., April 17 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 94 minutes.

It would be cynical to suggest that this sound little drama about fugitive slave hunters, set during the late Civil War, is riding the coattails of 12 Years a Slave. Let me put it differently: Chris Eska’s indie feature wouldn’t be released in theaters were it not for the new interest in that fraught chapter of American history. The plot you know from countless Westerns and such: An impressionable youth on a perilous journey, mentored by two father figures—one a scoundrel, the other a man of integrity.

Will (Ashton Sanders) is a 13-year-old whose parents have disappeared into the plantations. He and Marcus (Keston John) are the two black members of a white bounty-hunting gang that uses them as bait. They’re paid a few coins to betray their kind, but the ringleader clearly has the power of death over them, too. Will feels compelled to obey, even when he and Marcus are sent north over the border—the film was shot in Texas, though the story isn’t region-specific—to entice Nate (Tishuan Scott) back to the land of shackles (or worse).

On this rural odyssey, our trio walks off the paths where whites and soldiers might be encountered. Their existence is liminal, and we’re unsure where the border lies. The grass, trees, and swamps provide no clue, since all men ought to be free in this natural domain. Only Nate feels confident here. “I ain’t a runaway,” he tells Will, who’s awed to meet a free black man—probably the first he’s ever encountered. (Nate’s also lethal with a tomahawk, which helps make an impression.)

Rather than burrowing into the psychological anguish of one particular slave, as in the recent Oscar winner, this is a more archetypical tale—solemn and familiar, with an outcome that seems older than slavery itself.

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