Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Of Human Bondage: How The Retrieval Succeeds Where 12 Years a Slave Failed

Posted By on Wed, Apr 2, 2014 at 10:00 AM

the retrieval movie chris eska tishuan scott ashton sanders slavery
In an early scene of The Retrieval, an unusual movie about slavery that opens today at Film Forum, a white slavehunter is pushing and punching his latest catch just because he can when his white boss shoots him in the shoulder, noting that the "slave" (his word is more vile) is worth $600—and he ain't. The story of American slavery is often told in movies, but rarely with the knottiness it is here. The unforgivable, inexcusable, unqualifiable evil is usually presented, as recently as 12 Years a Slave, with a focus on its abject abhorrence: the blacks as victims, beaten, raped, robbed of dignity; the whites, save a token savior, their loathsome oppressors.

But the ethics aren't so easily broken down by race in The Retrieval: an old white lady with a shotgun mans a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a bunch of white men take custody of the runaways she's hiding; those black runaways are sold out by our black heroes, a pair of freemen (well, a freeman and a freeboy), who make a living helping to catch and turn in the escaped unfree. This isn't to suggest that all peoples bore equal culpability for this dark period of shameful history, whose implications still reverberate in American culture, but that like anything in real life it was fraught with unexpected complexity—which is the basis of good storytelling. Within unimaginably horrid circumstances, they're getting by the best they can; reprehensible as their actions may seem on their surface, they're sympathetic. It's about getting painted into a corner, and learning you can walk through the paint.

Writer-director Chris Eska, a white guy from a supersmall town in Texas, doesn't dwell on the inherent violence the way 12 Years or Django Unchained did, trusting the audience instead to know and understand the stakes. That said, death and war hang over the film, its sounds echoing through evening forests, bodies floating by or lying still on stumbled-upon battlefields. Ashton Sanders plays a teenager under the care of his uncle, played by Keston John; the two go far from camp on the instructions of their employer to bring back a freeman played by Tishuan Scott, who has a pricey bounty on his head, using a phony story about his brother falling ill. What ensues is a preautomobile road movie through ironically picturesque backcountry (it was shot in rural Texas), where the nascent War Between the States might erupt without warning.

What makes this movie a triumph of its genre is that it's not a movie about slavery so much as a movie about people, set against that historical period. (Tellingly, Steve McQueen first intended to make a movie about slavery and then discovered Solomon Northup's extraordinary story; Eska worked backward from his themes. He even considered setting this movie in 1970s India, or on the present-day Texas-Mexico border.) The Retrieval is informed by the attitudes of the 1860s but only insofar as they define its characters and the choices they must make. No one preaches, characters or director; instead, character is established by action—it's a human story. There's the veritable orphan in search of a father; an alienated, isolated man in need of a companion; and their budding relationship, built on dishonesty, that foundational lie driving the drama and the tension. In its hard-hitting understatement, this film exposes the feel-better prestige-pic grandstanding of our most recent Best Picture winner, and what a humble, honest movie set within a similar milieu looks like in comparison. You don't leave the film feeling any less awful about slavery in the United States—you just don't feel as emotionally manipulated.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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