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Review: Chris Eska's Meditative, Slow-Burn Civil War Drama 'The Retrieval'

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood March 31, 2014 at 3:08PM

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.

The Retrieval

But the most saliently impressive quality in the film is its gorgeous mounting of period. Historical specificity is a financial burden for any production, and particularly for an independent one. The production design isn’t lavish, and much of it is shot in backwoods areas away from civilization, but it has a worn and tattered, grey-gold uniformity that extends from the locations to the costuming, and the beautifully lensed cinematography.

Indeed, “The Retrieval” is the best-looking film I saw at last year's SXSW, taking advantage of such visual wonders as frost-covered fields, misty swamps and the endless shades of bleakly glowing brown that the Texas landscape provides in winter. The clean shot composition focuses on the many aesthetic ways men can be filmed walking. Eska, who also edited, shows a flare for tension built through rhythm. How Will, Nate and Marcus learn to trust each other (or not) is communicated through shot and reaction shot duration. Meanwhile, the occasional moment of incisive action is elegantly constructed; Nate shows his ruthless side when he -- beat -- tells a man to stop running away, and then -- next beat -- expertly fells him with a hatchet.

Scott nabbed the Jury Acting prize out of the Austin fest, and rightly so; he captures Nate as a lone soul with strong instincts, in need of a son as deeply as Will is in need of a father figure. Sanders is also strong as Will. His chemistry with Scott is moving, and ultimately heartbreaking, but his best scene is opposite a pretty young girl they meet while passing through a community of freed slaves. In a quiet moment, the girl giggles and tells Will she wishes he’d stay, that there aren’t many other children around. “I ain’t a child,” Will says, hesitating for a fraction of a second before he and Nate continue on.

"The Retrieval" screens at Film Forum beginning April 2. Watch a clip below, with a TOH! exclusive second clip here.

This article is related to: Reviews, SXSW, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), The Retrieval, Chris Eska, Reviews, Festivals, Tishuan Scott, Festivals

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.