The Retrieval opens exclusively to Chicago's AMC River East 21 today. Actors Aston Sanders and Tishuan Scott are scheduled to attend select screenings for Q&A sessions.
The production of spectacle in contemporary blockbusters, particularly of the superhero variety, has become such a crutch that it often times fails to produce the intended imagery. Millions of dollars are dispensed into producing artificial Playstation-esque universes that it often times feels like a regression in visual construction rather than one that progresses the art. So when a microbudget film like Chris Eska’s The Retrieval attempts to produce a sense of spectacle through limited economic means, there’s an immediate sense of intimacy to his creations. It’s through this spectacle of economy that Eska impresses most; where there’s an independent spirit of sincerity and grit that pervades every frame of The Retrieval.
Eska’s film explores the in-flux period of slavery and emancipation, where a young black man named Will (Aston Sanders) works for a bounty hunter rounding up runaway slaves. A particularly lucrative bounty is to be collected by Will and his uncle Marcus (Keston John). Relying on Will’s air of innocence and Marcus’ ability to exploit that quality, they meet a fugitive freedman with a story about his dying brother requesting his presence, Nate (Tishuan Scott) meets the two with a sense of reluctance but is convinced of Will’s false sincerity. What follows is an articulate study of masculinity through the Texas forestland. Marcus’ mantra of egoism gives way to the more noble aspects of Nate’s character, whereby Will’s still fluid identity and perception of masculinity are reshaped.
The Retrieval’s not so much a coming-of-age as it is an exercise in emphasizing choice. Eska writes The Retrieval as a series of contrasts that places Will at the center of a moral tug-of-war. Marcus’ capitalistic perspective has its share of<-- benefits but strips Will of a conscious whereas Nate’s virtues leads to a measure of self-sufficiency but possesses its own share of personal struggles. It’s a cleverly written screenplay that utilizes genre without submitting to its recurrent tropes.
Despite the strengths of the film’s writing, The Retrieval does succumb to issues that are largely outside of Eska’s control. Given the specificity of its subject matter, it’s easy to see why this film is functioning on a shoe-string budget - but with that, there’s a clear sense that the film simply lacks the visual finesse that a period piece of this type most benefits from. While the Texan landscapes are impressive sights, the film’s cold digital look rarely does them justice. It’s an even greater obstacle when Eska shoots the three men in conversation - the artificiality and general aesthetic that the film fosters through its obsolete digitalism proves to be an incredible hurdle to get past.
Yet it’s tough to be too hard on a film clearly working under its own sense of ambition with a filmmaker clearly so committed to giving his subject fair treatment. The independent spirit of The Retrieval, coupled with the strength of performances and the significance of its narrative, overcomes most of its economic shortcomings.