Written and Directed by: Ciaran Foy
Starring: Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, and Wunmi Mosaku
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
They see your fear.
Even though it features some otherworldly creatures, Citadel is a very human horror film, one that aims at the most primal fear: loss. It hovers around characters who have lost and are deathly afraid of losing more, and it reveals the crippling effects: some are paralyzed by grief, while some are driven by a psychotic desire to make others suffer as they have suffered. When the two collide, it makes for one of the more somber but affecting genre efforts in recent memory, as director Ciaran Foy explores the sort of palpably disconcerting emotional spaces that are typically back-grounded in favor of empty shocks.
A shock ignites the proceedings, but it’s hardly empty: Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) are making their way back to their decrepit apartment when they’re suddenly bum-rushed by a group of hooded teenagers. Forced to look on helplessly from the elevator, Tommy watches the gang assault his wife and inject her with a substance that leaves her unconscious; fortunately, doctors are able to deliver the baby, but Joanne is left comatose. During the next nine months, Tommy becomes an agoraphobic shut-in, as he barricades himself into his apartment with the child, emerging only for support group sessions and visiting Joanne’s bedside. Living in these slums continues to be a dangerous proposition, though, as the same band of hooligans stalks the place in the hopes of wresting away Tommy’s newborn for their own nefarious purposes.
Citadel is suffocating in its grimness and melancholy. Foy has constructed a film that primarily thrives on atmosphere and intrigue, so much so that its overt horrors sit on the backburner for much of the film. The enigmatic children—whose appearance conjures up memories of The Brood and Ils—mostly lay in wait, appearing only in bursts and leaving Tommy to imprison himself via his own anguish and paranoia. Foy’s framing often traps his protagonist in dingy, cloistered interiors, with only a faint, sickly light casting a pall over the proceedings. Surrounding Tommy’s dilapidated apartment is a further deteriorating slum, which has been all but abandoned by civilization; Citadel finds an unexpected isolation in its urban locale, which becomes a theater for creeping terror.
The terror registers because of Barnard’s deeply affecting performance. When we first meet him, he’s the portrait of “okay”—sure, he’s living in a bit of a dumpy apartment, but he’s got his girl and a baby on the way. Things are good. Upon the film’s flash-forward, he’s utterly transformed: drained of life, with his big, sullen eyes acting as a gateway to misery, Tommy hunches and lurches his way through life, forever casting a suspicious gaze over his shoulder. The first hour of the film treads into misery porn territory: doctors eventually must take Joanne off of life support, thus forcing Tommy to raise his child alone. Barnard’s turn is understated and authentic, however, and not prone to hammy emoting or emotional displays. His big breakdown comes after the smallest of accidents, when he spills the baby’s bottle of formula; it’s a minor incident, but you can feel the grief wash over him in such a natural way.
The human factor of Tommy’s plight hooks you. While his conflict eventually becomes absurd and surreal, it feels quite universal. At its core, Citadel is a film about the fear of fucking up and losing whatever you have left. For Tommy, it’s his child, and his desperation is an intense, tangible sensation that causes the audience to be afraid for him as much as they’re afraid of whatever jolts Foy stirs up. On the other hand, the weird gang of children similarly clings to scraps of existence, having been abandoned to live alone in desolate slums. They now seek to inflict that suffering on others by taking children to join their horde, thus perpetuating a cycle of societal misery. There’s no missing the socio-political implications here: when left to their own devices, the poor are forced to consume themselves, though that subtext seems less immediate than that of Tommy’s more intimate journey of overcoming despair and fear.
Foy also cushions those political implications with his enigmatic portrayal of the antagonists, who remain somewhat mysterious throughout. Only a half-deranged priest (James Cosmo) provides any guidance for Tommy, and even he speaks in half-riddles and withholds information. At one point, he jokes that the kids are demons, and it’s easy to believe since the film is so otherwise cryptic about them, at least until the final 20 minutes or so. Once it's time to give up the ghost, Foy does a fine job of maintaining the delicate balance between revealing too much and being wilfully obtuse, even as the film turns into a pretty standard creepshow when Tommy, the priest, and a blind kid (Jake Wilson) brave the hoodlum’s bleak tower. Here, Citadel degenerates into a collection of scares and bizarre imagery, and this is not to mention a bit of a cloying, hackneyed climax.
These slight stumbles down the stretch aside, Citadel is a well-assembled horror film, as Foy meticulously scatters unsettling moments around the edges before revealing them full-bore. His knack for escalation is sound, and his ability to consistently juxtapose the on-screen horrors with Tommy himself is impressive. There’s a pivotal moment later in the film that’s captured with a long-shot, ostensibly from his point-of-view; in this film, the audience aren’t voyeurs—they’re fellow travelers on a descent into hell. Foy’s horror chops have landed him the gig for the upcoming Sinister sequel; judging from Citadel, there’s good reason to believe it’ll be a finely tuned assembly of unnerving sights and sounds. However, the attention he lavishes on the humanity underpinning his debut gives me hope that we’re not due for Bughuul's Greatest Hits being put on by a low-rent cover band. Buy it!
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