Writer-director Chris Eska’s 2013 independent production is a gripping coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Civil War.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
Shot entirely on various picturesque locations throughout Texas, writer-director Chris Eska’s The Retrieval is an outstanding example of regional indie filmmaking at its most accomplished. Currently available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, You Tube and other streaming platforms, it is relentlessly enthralling and uncommonly satisfying as a unique mix of suspenseful road movie, persuasively detailed period drama and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story.
That story is told from the viewpoint of Will (Ashton Sanders), a 13-year-old African-American boy who receives a brutal education in matters of life and death while the Civil War rages in 1864. Will and his brutally cynical Uncle Marcus (Keston John) are forcibly employed by a taciturn tough customer named Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) and his ragtag band of bounty hunters to help in the pursuit and capture of runaway slaves.
Burrell is so confident of his control over Will and Marcus that he sends the pair up north, alone, to locate Nate (Tishuan Scott), an ex-slave with a price on his head. Will and Marcus are supposed to trick Nate into heading back south, where Burrell awaits, with a lie about the failing health of Nate’s brother. The longer the three travelers are together during their lengthy journey, 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. Even so, however, Will remains reluctant to betray Burrell, who has promised to track down and kill the youngster if he doesn’t complete his assignment.
When The Retrieval premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival — where Tishuan Scott received a richly deserved jury award for his terrific performance — I noted in my Variety review: “Some observers are bound to make much of the [movie’s] passing similarities to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. But film buffs with longer memories may be more inclined to note visual and tonal echoes of Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, particularly during a closing scene that has the same melancholy effect Fonda achieved in his classic 1971 western.”
UP NEXT: HIDALGO