Tuesday, October 01, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Citadel

It’s an odd one, is ‘Citadel’. Writer/director Ciaran Foy’s first full-length feature gets a lot of things right, particularly in its suffocatingly realistic first half. He mines an effective seam of psychological horror, grimly yoked to a specific sense of place. He gets inside the emotionally scarred cloisters of his protagonist’s mind in just a few intensive and immersive scenes. He establishes a very real atmosphere of threat that seems to lurk just offscreen.

Frustratingly, there’s an almost equal amount of problems with the film, the main one being that it changes horses in midstream and not in a breath-taking, rug-pull, force the audience to re-evaluate everything they’ve just seen kind of way. ‘Citadel’ effects its equine/waterway transition in a “hey, hold on a minute” kind of way that throws a shadow over its final act.

Nonetheless, it has enough going for it to outweigh the problematic aspects, so let’s start at the beginning. In a stomach churning pre-credits sequence, clean-cut young couple Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his heavily pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) are moving out of their flat in a dismal tower block somewhere in Ireland – the Irish setting identifiable only by the accents; Foy subtly infers that this could be any economically depressed and unpoliced urban environment anywhere – when Joanne is attacked by a group of youths in hoodies. Tommy, trapped in a malfunctioning lift, is unable to intercede in time. Their child is delivered, but Joanne is comatose. A baby girl is handed to Tommy; abject fear etches itself on his face.

The single-word title card slams on screen, then it’s a nine-month flash forward and Tommy, rehoused in an equally shitty area – burnt out cars, overturned shopping trolleys, boarded up windows, the tower block looming like a fifty-storey tombstone in the background – is struggling to cope with agoraphobia and single-parenthood. We follow him through a counselling session, the decision to turn off his wife’s life support, and her funeral. ‘Citadel’, as you may have gathered, is not a particularly happy little film. The burial is presided over by a priest (James Cosmo) – that’s exactly how the closing credits refer to him: the priest – who seems to have some mental health issues of his own going on, and who warns Tommy in a parade of expletives that “they’re coming for your daughter”.

Meanwhile, sympathetic nurse Marie (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to reach out to Tommy and reason with him. So far so good. Tommy’s crippling agoraphobia – Foy apparently suffered from the condition in his teens and early twenties – is evoked bluntly but empathetically. Barnard’s performance utterly captures the horrible state of existence of someone who lives in perpetual fear. The priest’s crazy ruminations are pitched at just the right level to key into – and indeed exacerbate – Tommy’s mindset. Mosaku gives a beautifully nuanced performance: Marie gives the film a much needed emotion core.

Then Foy goes for the big reveal in a jarring scene. That’s “jarring” in both the good and bad sense. Jarring in that the punchy editing and stark brutality of it deliver the same kind of aesthetic kidney punch that the opening scene packs. And jarring in that it marks a tonal shift which informs the rest of the movie. Without wanting to err too far into spoiler territory, the direction Foy takes embraces some very familiar tropes – from innocent-child-targetted-by-Satanic-beings to mismatched-protagonists-storm-impenetrable-hideout-against-superior-numbers. This much I will throw up a SPOILER ALERT for: Foy very unambiguously dismisses Marie’s rationalism and proves the whacko priest right: the hoodies aren’t violent kids but yer actual demons. SPOILERS END.

It’s a narrative decision that foists ‘Citadel’ with two immediate problems: (i) Foy essentially stops making a psychologically acute character study that was obviously very personal to him in favour of a melting pot of favourite genre moments (the second half of ‘Citadel’ channels ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘Darklands’, ‘Phenomena’ and even a basement scene curiously reminiscent of ‘Basket Case’); and (ii) at least two preceding scenes, the logic of which only holds if certain incidents take place purely in Tommy’s mind, are rendered essentially meaningless. Put simply, when ‘Citadel’ trades in its scarred protagonist’s inner demons, Foy delivers some intense and fearless filmmaking; but when it trades in literal demons, however, it becomes just another low budget scare show.

And yet – with the likes of ‘Eden Lake’, ‘Cherry Tree Lane’, ‘F’, ‘Attack the Block’, ‘Harry Brown’, ‘Outlaw’ and gawd knows how many other cheerless slabs of Brit-grim perpetuating the “hoodie horror” ethos that typifies a certain tabloid mentality unique to my home country – it’s kind of refreshing to see a horror movie in an urban setting where the antagonists are actually preternatural beings instead of the drugged-up little oiks with a royal flush of ASBOs and Stanley knives in their pockets who are eyeing up your car and wondering what’s the easiest way of breaking into your house.

‘Citadel’ would have benefited immeasurably from Foy deciding which way to go with the material and sticking with it. And while the hoodies-as-actual-demons idea is a great concept, I can’t help feeling that continuing with the psychological angle would have made for a better film.

Still, Foy seems to be developing a gritty, edgy directorial style. He understands the importance of location and mise en scene, and he’s obviously capable of drawing performances from actors. Low production values and minimal budget haven’t stopped him from making something that looks like it belongs on the big screen; I’ve seen films made for double or more the budget of ‘Citadel’ that look like they should have shuffled shame-facedly through the distribution portal marked “DTV”. While it falls short of the directorial calling-card it deserved to be, ‘Citadel’ certainly announces Foy’s potential.

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