Chris Eska’s second feature, The Retrieval, confirms its director as the successor to John Sayles—a stubborn independent committed, for better or worse, to the kinds of issues and stories no studio would touch. Set in 1864, on the fringes of the Civil War, the film follows a couple of black slave-catchers as they lure a freedman into Confederate territory on behalf of a white bounty hunter. It’s a modest, noncommercial period piece, distinguished by confident performances and scraggly, unspectacular Texas landscapes. However, a viewer might be left wishing Eska were more willing to use visual style expressively or imaginatively. Like Sayles, he lets the subject matter do much of the work, resulting in a movie that, for the most part, looks like a cable drama.
At the center of The Retrieval is the relationship between the wanted man, Nate (Tishuan Scott), and 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders), who works with his uncle, Marcus (Keston John), rooting out slaves and fugitives for a small cut of the bounty. The first shot of the film follows Will as he approaches a safe house, posing as a runaway; in the distance, bursts of cannon fire illuminate the sky like dull lightning. It’s a doozy of an opening, marked by a sense of composition and purpose that the rest of the film never quite musters. Right to left, foreground to background, it lays out the milieu, a world away from the war. In later scenes, the characters see soldiers (played by pudgy Civil War re-enactors), but don’t interact with them. Implicit is a notion of the Civil War as an exclusively white war, with blacks struggling to get by on the outskirts, their status as social invisibles unchanged as they cross the free-slave border.
Will belongs to that category of corrupted innocents who are perpetually on the lookout for a father figure. As the group heads south, that role shifts from Marcus to Nate. Scott’s performance (which won him a jury award at South By Southwest) represents a 180-degree turn from his role as Keneiloe, Computer Chess’ enigmatic New Age guru, but relies on the same ability to convincingly project confidence. He is self-possessed, but not anachronistically cocky, which makes the character seem all the more authentic. In fact, despite its meager budget, The Retrieval is characterized by its authenticity. The dialogue and attitudes are persuasive in creating both a consistent psychology and a sense of the historical past, without ever lapsing into a flowery 19th century-ness. Much credit is due to Eska’s handling of the actors; considering the charged subject matter, it’s impressive that none of the performances—even the one delivered by pockmarked B-movie mainstay Bill Oberst Jr., who plays a bounty hunter who shoots at his men to maintain discipline—lapse into cartoonishness.
The movie’s flaws are not missteps, but steps not taken. Like Eska’s debut feature, the Spanish-language drama August Evening, The Retrieval seems dead-set on being as unostentatious as possible—on looking, in other words, like anything but an art film. The camerawork is largely handheld, but the camera mostly stays in one place, resulting in a continual, lulling up-down bob. The editing (by Eska himself) is strictly of the “cut to whoever’s talking” variety, and nearly every scene begins with some kind of establishing shot, used to either introduce a new location or suggest the passage of time. There’s a reason this kind of style has become a mainstay of serial television: It’s easy to digest, and generally good at conveying performance and plot, two things many TV viewers lock in on. This doesn’t undercut the film so much as soften it.