“You gonna have to be your own man someday,” the paternal Nate admonishes Will, the 13-year-old hero of The Retrieval. It’s a recognition of the boy’s self-stunting deference, his tendency to nestle in the shadows of his influences. You might say Chris Eska’s film has the same inclination. Despite its plentiful achievements, The Retrieval hews too closely to familiar coming-of-age tropes and demonstrates a frustrating reluctance to be its own film.
Three years into the Civil War, Will (newcomer Ashton Sanders) and his uncle Marcus (Keston John) are indentured to Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) and his brigade of itinerant bounty-hunters. Will's role—established in a tense prologue suffused with titillating uncertainty—is to ingratiate himself with Southerners harboring runaway slaves and then inform Burrell of their whereabouts. In return Will and Marcus receive a meager cut of the bounty and the continued protection of Burrell (which also naturally means protection from Burrell). Marcus, a pragmatist whose self-preservation instincts are absolute, accepts this state of affairs because the alternative fills his nostrils with each breath of poisoned Confederate air.
Will, however, still polishes the gold coin left him by an absent father and dreams of a world where reunions (read: reunification) are possible. Which is to say, he yearns for a role model but isn’t sure his uncle’s survival mentality is right for him. So when Burrell dispatches the pair into Union territory to lure back Nate (Tishuan Scott), a freedman with an ample price on his head, he takes immediate note of the fugitive’s quiet integrity. Nate risks all to dig graves for the Union army because he can drop his shovel and leave when he likes; this reasoning unlocks a chamber of Will’s soul that circumstances had never allowed him to access.
The story lends itself to meditation on the same questions of societal cannibalism explored in Edward P. Jones’s tapestry of black slaveholders The Known World, and on the kind of individual struggles against dehumanization that charged 12 Years a Slave. But writer-director Eska steps back just as the paradoxes are mounting, content to slip into the well-worn grooves of makeshift-family narratives. Nate, with his plainspoken authority and battle-hardened rectitude, is the father figure Will so desperately seeks, and Will, faintly disillusioned but nonetheless hopeful, stands in for not merely the continuance of Nate’s lineage but also a post-slavery America finding its footing.
To the credit of Eska, whose prior feature was the likewise stately but superior August Evening (07), the film is less symbolically fraught than it might have been. (A woodland gambol with an animal skull, dreamily shot by DP Yasu Tanida, comes off as an incongruous excursion into Malickian reverie.) The problem lies more in the movie’s willingness to play on, rather than between, the beats. Will goes from bondage to bonding with few surprises; even an ax-throwing tutorial he gets from Nate plays like a 19th-century version of the hoary driving-lesson scene. It’s also unclear why the scrupulous Nate would fail to intuit the trap he’s being led into, or why Marcus and Will, upon clearing the Mason-Dixon line, wouldn’t heed Burrell’s observation that if a man doesn’t want to be found, there are many places he can go.
Our investment in the proceedings owes much to the strength of the performances, particularly Scott’s finely etched portrayal of a man whose decency will not be tamped down by war. Oberst, reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton, with a twist of Levon Helm, ably skirts parody in his rendering of a backcountry vulture. But The Retrieval’s greatest triumph lies in conjuring a milieu where death is never more than an ax’s throw away. Bodies drift by in streams where the characters wash; battles break out spontaneously around them. Revealingly, the fortyish Nate is referred to as an “old man,” and the landscape he traverses is emphatically no country for old men. The stillness of the leafless forests which mark the film’s topography can give way in an instant to pitiless violence. Yet the storytelling remains staunchly, predictably on course.