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Chris Eska's 'The Retrieval' is a powerful coming of age story

'The Retrieval' movie review


Director Chris Eska’s ‘The Retrieval’ begins with a cannon fire blazing with a resounding boom against a clear night sky. It serves as a metaphor for the turmoil just within reach of sleeping slaves.

Bill Oberst Jr as Burrell.
Bill Oberst Jr as Burrell.
Courtesy of Variance Films with permission. All Rights Reserved.

The film takes us on a journey on the outskirts of the Civil War with a fatherless 13 year-old boy sent north by his bounty hunter gang on a dangerous mission to retrieve a wanted man under false pretense. During their journey towards the unwitting man’s reckoning, the initially distant pair develops unexpected bonds. As his feelings grow, the boy is consumed by conflicting emotions and a gut-wrenching ultimate decision: betray the father figure he’s finally found or risk being killed by his gang for insubordination.

‘The Retrieval’ examines the fabric that makes up families. Will (Ashton Sanders) along with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John) work for Paddy rollers to retrieve runaway slaves. Marcus is a man of opportunity and is devoid of any real emotion or sense of family. He is only concerned with receiving his share of the money for the unsuspecting slaves they recapture. Will is tethered to him and subject to his version of family that includes ridicule and scorn. It is the only way of life that young Will knows. For example, Marcus has such little regard for his nephew that he offers him up to the leader of the gang, Burrell (Bill Oberst, Jr.) for fifty dollars.

Nate (Tishaun Scott) a freedman and the subject of the pair’s ruse, slowly educates Will about the ways of being a man. Will is wary and confused by the kindness shown by this stranger. He begins to question, why a man he hardly knows is kinder than his own family? He is taken aback when they are caught in a crossfire between the Union and Confederate armies, Nate risk his own life to save him when his own uncle runs away in a failed attempt to save himself.

The Civil War is but a distant backdrop to the raw emotions and heightened suspense played out on the screen. The turmoil within Will is more palatable than the chaos of a divided country. This well executed story is so gut-wrenching that at times, I had to physically will myself to breathe (my chest felt like a brick had been placed on it). Hint: keep a box of tissues handy.

The chemistry displayed between Scott and Sanders is invoked through expressive stares and non-verbal cues. Their heartbreaking performance is mostly conveyed without dialogue and both actors are packed with the powerful talents of gifted artist. Scott’s low voice and demeanor speaks volumes about this free man. Sander’s eyes wide with wonder, invokes the tale of a motherless child without a proper family home. In the end, it is the sacrifice and forgiveness dispensed by Nate that solidifies the meaning of family and alters Will’s path in life. The level of acting is so superb that the film premiered at SXSW in 2013 and was awarded the Special Grand Jury Prize for Acting.

Eska partnered with Matthew Wiedemann and via internet with UK musician Jon Attwood (Yellow6) to craft a soundtrack that elicits emotion through both traditional and modern elements. The results are haunting melodies that mirror the turmoil on screen. The music becomes an integral character within the film.

Filmed in Gonzales, Texas near Eska’s hometown of Ottine, this period films’ adherence to detail is remarkable. Eska poured over hundreds of historical photos and documents to get it right. The costumes designed by Caroline Karlen and Lily Walker are flawless and add to the authenticity of the film.

‘The Retrieval’ is a visually stimulating and powerfully executed coming of age story examining the meaning of family. It will surely stand the test of time and is destined to be a film classic.