Early in Ciaran Foy’s thriller Citadel, a therapist tells the intensely agoraphobic Aneurin Barnard that if he carries himself like a victim, he’s more likely to be targeted by criminals. But it’s hard for Barnard to behave any differently. Almost a year ago, he helplessly watched through an elevator window while his pregnant wife was attacked and rendered comatose by hooded thugs; now, Barnard has a newborn baby to look after, in an impoverished neighborhood where there have been multiple kidnappings. He has every reason to be petrified, even though he knows, rationally, that he and his daughter might be safer if he could make himself into more of a badass.
Citadel starts off in the tradition of such all-alone-and-paranoid suspense classics as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where every creaking floorboard and shifting reflection touches off a mild panic in the protagonist. Foy plays up the fear by finding the creep-out potential in every square foot of Barnard’s residence. His front door has frosted glass—the better to see amorphous figures lurking on the stoop—and a latch that won’t hold. The power in his neighborhood is faulty, and flickers out at inconvenient times. Meanwhile, his child cries constantly, especially when Barnard’s trying to hide from the murderous gangs that he knows are after him. Finally, Barnard decides to take the offensive, and Citadel becomes less quietly unnerving and more overtly horrific.
Aside from making the audience jump, shriek, and look nervously over their shoulders (and aside from some social comment about the spreading plague of crime committed by underprivileged youths), there isn’t much to Citadel. It’s a short movie, in which much of the first two-thirds has burly priest James Cosmo and kindly nurse Wunmi Mosaku trying to talk Barnard into getting over his fears, and the last third has the hero doing just that—and in the middle of a blackout, no less. But like Ben Wheatley’s recent Kill List, Citadel is an inventive combination of tense realism and more over-the-top horror, with villains who may not be of this world—who, according to Cosmo, can “only see fear.” Ultimately, neither the hero’s plight or the nature of his enemy matters as much as how scary Foy can make it all. And Citadel is plenty scary: a bare-bones man-against-his-worst-fears white knuckler, shot through deep, menacing shadows.