Chris Eska’s beautifully made Civil War drama “The Retrieval,” which opens at Film Forum April 2, is a quietly stirring journey into America’s ravaged heartland of 1864. It follows three black men, two fully grown and one barely on the cusp of adolescence, as they walk North and navigate the complexities of survival, self-interest and slowly emerging friendship.
13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) and the older Marcus (Keston John) work for a band of bounty hunters, led by the vicious Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.). Often they are tasked with locating hidden slaves, insinuating themselves into the runaways’ company and then turning them over to Burrell’s gang. When Will and Marcus are sent on a mission to find Nate, a freed black man whose capture will bring a hefty sum, the two are warned that returning without Nate will spell death.
Will and Marcus embark on their search, plodding through wintry golden terrain and the scorched earth of battlefields, looking for a man with the same skin color as their own whose deposited corpse will save them from a similar fate. They eventually find Nate (Tishuan Scott), a large fellow with a perceptive gaze. At first he’s wary of their claim that his sick brother is in need of a visit, but he’s a decent man willing to trust that others are the same, and goes along with them.
Will finds a kinship with Nate, one he doesn’t feel for the bullying, self-serving Marcus. When Marcus is killed in the crosshairs of a Union-Confederate battle that emerges suddenly on their overnight campground, Will and Nate are left alone to continue their journey -- towards the dead brother who Nate believes is still alive, and the bounty hunting gang that will murder Will if he doesn’t deliver his new friend.
“The Retrieval” is admirable for many reasons, one being that it isn’t afraid to take its time. Writer-director Eska, who won the Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award for his previous feature “August Evening,” lets the drama unfold at a meditative pace. The characters primarily walk and talk in this film, shooting penetrating glances at one another, conversing in low tones, and always watching their environment for any gradual or sudden shift. War territories are volatile, and though few scenes of violence occur in the film, the possibility is always thick in the atmosphere, especially for Will and Nate, whose freedom is an outrage to many.