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"The Retrieval" Movie Review: 3 Stars
by Joe Leydon
Equal parts suspenseful road movie, persuasively detailed period drama and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story, "The Retrieval" is an outstanding example of regional indie filmmaking accomplished with limited resources and an abundance of skill.
Writer-director Chris Eska's drama about black freedmen pressed into service by white bounty hunters opens in 1864. As the Civil War continues to rage, 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) and his brutally cynical Uncle Marcus (Keston John) are gainfully employed, whether they want to be or not, by a taciturn tough customer named Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) and his ragtag band of bounty hunters.
The potent opening scene -- during which it's only gradually clear that cannon fire, not lightning, is sporadically illuminating the nighttime sky -- details the standard operational procedure: Will earns the confidence of an elderly woman housing runaway slaves, then alerts the bounty hunters to ride in and capture their human prey.
Burrell is so confident of his control over Will and Marcus that he sends the pair up north to locate Nate (Tishuan Scott), an ex-slave with a price on his head.
Will and Marcus are supposed to lure Nate back south, where Burrell awaits, with a lie about Nate's dying brother wanting a final reunion.
The longer the three travelers are together during an extended trek, however, the more Will comes to view Nate -- a gruff but decent fellow first seen digging graves for Union soldiers -- as the father figure he never had. Trouble is, even after Marcus departs the narrative, Will remains reluctant to betray Burrell, who has promised to track down and kill the youngster if he doesn't complete his assignment.
Filmed entirely on various picturesque locations throughout Texas, "The Retrieval" unfolds at a pace neither brisk nor dawdling, giving sufficient screen time to the credible development of wary respect between Will and Nate, but also allowing for dramatically effective detours along the way.
Arguably the film's most conventionally exciting highlight: The three travelers, always mindful that the ongoing war is never far off, inadvertently wander into a full-blown battle (which Eska stages, thrillingly, with real-life Civil War re-enactors).
Scott received a well-deserved SXSW jury award for his subtly calibrated performance. But Sanders, a remarkably expressive newcomer, more than holds his own in their scenes together, and generates sympathy during solo moments when Will struggles with his conscience.
John adroitly conveys the self-loathing that percolates just below the surface of Marcus' toxic misanthropy. And Oberst is all the more chilling by playing Burrell as a blunt-spoken pragmatist who appears to believe that, given the circumstances, he's a reasonably fair individual.
MPAA rating: R (for some violence). Running time: 1:33.
"The Retrieval" Movie Trailer
In 1864, on the outskirts of the Civil War, a boy is sent by a bounty hunter gang to retrieve a wanted freedman and bring him back to the South, but as they begin to form an unexpected bond, the boy must face a gut-wrenching decision.
'The Retrieval' Movie Review & Movie Trailer