Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John, Bill Oberst, Jr.
US theatrical: 2 Apr 2014 (Limited release)
“There ain’t much other children ‘round here,” warns Abby (Raven Nicole LaDeatte), a teenager living on the edge of a swamp with a group of fellow freed slaves. Thirteen-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders) squares his shoulders and replies, “I ain’t children.”
Children have a difficult time in Chris Eska’s The Retrieval. As the film—opening this week at New York’s Film Forum—follows Will’s experience as a Negro child during the Civil War, it borrows generic conventions from Westerns, road movies, and coming of age stories, in order to ask fundamental questions about the nature of freedom.
It’s 1864 and Will is working for both his Uncle Marcus (Keston John) and Burrell (Bill Oberst, Jr.), a white bounty hunter. Burrell tracks down fugitive slaves, some worth as much as $600, paying Marcus and Will to draw them out or supply him with information. While Will is conflicted about what they are doing, Marcus is not, observing the screaming fugitives with some detachment and telling his nephew, “That’s money, what that is.” Money, of course, is the premise of Marcus’ freedom. For Will, money promises something more, as his father has run off without him and the boy is trying to earn enough money so that he can go find him. But for all Marcus’ cold bravado, he is also keenly aware that Burrell is a deadly threat to them, should he and Will stop being useful.
That moment may be at hand when Burrell assigns them to track down Nate (Tishuan Scott), whom the bounty hunter describes as a “runaway,” now digging graves for the Federals. Burrell sends Marcus and Will after him with the warning that if they fail to return, he will track them down and kill them. When they find Nate, Will tells him his brother is dying of consumption and wants to see him before he dies. Nate believes the lie and, despite the great risk he knows he faces, agrees to head back South with his new acquaintances.
During their walk back, we come to see that Nate is the opposite of Marcus in every way. Where Marcus is selfish, Nate is nurturing. While Marcus mocks, Nate instructs. It’s no surprise then that fatherless Will is irrepressibly drawn to Nate or that The Retrieval has much to say about what it means to be a man. Nate imparts such wisdom to Will as “You’re gonna have to be your own man someday” and even teaches him about women (“They trouble, all of them. But they worth it”).
We learn that Nate’s former “woman”, Rachel (Christine Horn), remains a slave when he has a brief conversation about her with her current husband, Isaac (Alfonso Freeman). As they briefly bond over their complaints over her temper, it’s unsettling to recognize how little control she has over her own personhood, most obviously because she is literally owned by her mistress, but also perceived as property by these two men, one enslaved, one free.
Nate and Isaac’s conversation draws attention as well to the film’s emphasis on varying definitions of “kin”. It’s Nate’s connection to his brother that drives his willingness to risk his life to go back and see him. Will’s desire to find his father is his excuse for being Burrell’s accomplice, but his kinship to Marcus gives him a false sense of security. When Marcus, Will, and Nate come across a battlefield littered with dead soldiers, Marcus and Will are eager to steal from the bodies, but Nate insists they take only water, and “leave the rest for their kinfolk”.
The repeated references to families serve as a painful reminder of how families are destroyed and ripped apart in a slave culture, and also of the dreadful loneliness suffered by individuals, in particular the three travelers at the film’s center. The film makes this feeling visible, in compositions featuring bare trees and wide open autumn fields or quiet, foggy swamps, and in a soundtrack haunted by whistling wind.
As we watch all this walking and talking through dramatic landscapes, we’re increasingly aware that Will must come to a decision as to whether or not he will turn Nate over to Burrell. As he tramps through the woods with his newly found father figure, Will’s small frame is swallowed up by the large soldier’s coat he’s wearing, a visual reminder that the decision that he has to make is overwhelming.
It’s a horrible burden for anyone, let alone a child, and it is painful to watch him wrestle with such a grown-up dilemma and try to wriggle out of it by proposing childish solutions (maybe, Will hopes, Nate can pay his own bounty and Burrell will let him go). We see again and again that Will is right when he tells Abby he “ain’t children.”