Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Cinema File #55: "Citadel" Review

I've had this movie in my queue for a while now, but up until now I've hesitated watching it, thinking it was just another zombie movie I'd have to slog through. Turns out, that's not the case at all, both in that the bad guys infesting the titular building aren't actually zombies at all, and in that the experience was far from an arduous one. It's slow moving and atmospheric, but it grabbed me in the intense first five minutes and never let up, even in the more introspective moments.

Citadel follows a man forced to raise a newborn alone after his wife dies in childbirth, following a brutal assault by a gang of mysterious hooded street kids. When the gang returns, hunting the man's child, he teams up with a bad ass priest and learns a dark secret about a hidden subculture in his neighborhood. He's left broken by the experience and living in fear of the outside world, and the film does a great job of seeing everything through his eyes, to the point where until it becomes explicit, the supernatural element can almost be passed off as a figment of his fractured psyche. I was reminded of another film I reviewed recently, The Harsh Light of Day, which had a similar set up, but went so overboard with the stylish touches that the effect was lost. Here, its just subtle enough and effectively establishes a consistent tone of dread the hangs over the entire movie

I usually try not to read other reviews for movies I intend to review myself, so as not to influence my opinion, but in doing some basic research on Citadel, I couldn't help reading a few, and I was surprised to find more than one criticizing the film for the weakness of its protagonist. I found him instantly sympathetic and engaging as he tries to balance his ever increasing terror with his need to protect his child. He's a victim, and much of his arc is about being made a victim and learning to climb out of the emotional pit that that can place you in. To suggest that after what he went through, that his behavior is somehow unusual, or that he should be stronger or less of a wimp, seems a bit callous to me. His conflict comes to a head at the half way point of the film in a story turn that sets up a final battle with his aggressors, and it is a testament to how well the film is made that something so predictable, something I assumed had to happen in a story like this, was still as shocking and tense as it was.

The monsters in Citadel are a bit vaguely described as the Infected. We get a quick throwaway back story about them, but in the end, I think even that was unnecessary. They are basically an army of homeless teenagers who kidnap children to increase their ranks, transformed literally by an unknown disease, but metaphorically by their outcast status, into monstrous beasts that hunt by smelling the hormones released through fear. I might have called BS on this if they weren't presented so well, almost invisible to the world around them until they strike, not because of any special ability, but simply because they fit into a social class that is ignored and forgotten about. I almost wish there was a little less explanation concerning who and what they are, as what we're given almost serves to diminish the mystery the film builds around them in the first half. Still, I was surprised by how gripping the final scenes were set in their den. You wouldn't think shambling psycho teens would evoke anything more than unintentional laughter, but at least for me, it worked very well. It's the kind of concept that ordinarily I would question, if only because the possibility of finding a cure for whatever has turned them is never brought up, and it's just assumed that they are too far gone and something other than human, but while watching, I never gave it a second thought, which owes a lot to the creepy, uncompromising tone.

There is a subtext to this film that I'm not quite sure I'm comfortable with, and I don't know if it is because the movie makes a mistake in its presentation, or if I'm just too bogged down in an American sensibility to fully embrace it. Clearly, the fact that the monsters in this film are homeless youths, and the fact that we can see them as monsters at all, is meant to be a commentary on how we will consign the poor and homeless in our society to the fringes, creating whole communities that we can just pretend don't exist and leave to rot. They are dehumanized just as we dehumanize the downtrodden in real life so we do not have to think about them, and thus, not have to think about how we might fare in their situation, or how little we are willing to help our fellow man. And yet, in doing so, I wonder if the social commentary is subverted for the sake of horror. Without spoiling it, there's a scene where a woman's natural instinct towards kindness proves her undoing, and its so brutal, that any sympathy I might have for the dregs of society goes out the window. At the same time though, I remember thinking that her actions were such a European impulse, whereas an American such as myself might have seen the same situation approaching and gotten as far away as possible, so maybe I'm just misinterpreting the whole thing due to a cultural divide.

Thematic confusion aside, as a horror thriller, Citadel was more than satisfying. One of the only reasons I watched the movie at all was because I saw that James Cosmo from Game of Thrones was in it, and he doesn't disappoint. His foul mouthed monster hunting priest is a delight from the moment he's introduced, and I found myself wanting more of him even if it would have distracted from the single minded focus on the main character's plight. Along for the ride is a young boy rescued from the Infected, but rendered blind by his time with them and able to see fear as they do, and out of everyone in the film, his was the only character I thought could have been excised completely. He's basically there to provide a moment for the main character to rise to the challenge at the end and be brave, but its a very long and convoluted way to get there that could have been accomplished without using a crying 8 year old as a plot device. Overall though, it a small ensemble and a simple story that I can find very little fault with.

If you're a fan of horror movies, or just want to see a mad clergyman's crusade to murder homeless children, Citadel is an easy recommendation for me. It seems strange to praise a film for establishing a consistent tone and sticking with it, as that would seem to be the bare minimum standard for any movie, but considering how many don't seem to know how to do that, I'm always pleased to see one that does. If you can make it through the first half hour, which I can see being a bit slow for some people, I can promise that it builds to a powerful and surprisingly optimistic ending. Definitely give this one a chance if you come across it.

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