Numbing, gnawing and sheer unrelenting fear is the primary element driving this creepy, terrifying dystopian shocker. Citadel, which without question was one of the best films of 2012, trains its lens upon the fears of the disenfranchised – those eking out their existence amidst poverty, crime and societal indifference in blasted-out housing projects – Citadel plunges us into a reality that is as recognizable as it is fantastical. Indeed, given the constant state of bleakness brought about by financial crises and war, these could well be all our fears.
Ciaran Foy’s Citadel resembles an approach to fantastical genres that began in the 1940s American studio system. This particular brand of cinematic horror is inspired by a myriad of artistic influences from fairy tale through to classical literature, with much of it based on European sources, the fact remains its beginnings are as American as apple pie (drenched, of course in noir-like shadows). In the past decade or so, we’ve seen films with a similar temperament, like The Others (2001) or The Sixth Sense (1999), reach heights of critical and box office success but, while these works are not without value, they always felt to me like kinder, gentler horror films, rather than something designed to leave you quaking in your boots. Citadel stands well apart from these films and blends traditions of Val Lewton’s 1940s horror masterpieces and the heightened, raw realism of the best of 1970s horror.
Val Lewton was the first person within Hollywood’s mainstream studio system to tell real stories, about real people with real fears, mostly within contemporary settings and yet, all against the backdrop of genres designed to bring much-needed returns to a near-bankrupt studio.
In his view, what really scared people were those things they had to deal with every day. He believed that setting the wheels of reality in motion against a fantastical backdrop yielded a much better chance of scoring at the box office. Without Lewton, one wonders if we’d have ever seen certain classics of both genre and cinema as a whole.
Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) followed in Lewton’s footsteps to explore mental illness within the context of seemingly straight-up ghost stories and, lest we forget, Nicholas Roeg’s extraordinary Don’t Look Now (1973), which begins with a child’s accidental death, moves through parental grief and eventually into territory of the most horrific kind. Those are all pictures Citadel shares its worthy pedigree with.
With the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the increased likelihood of apocalypse as America ramps up its greedy desire to control oil in the name of fighting terrorism and the obvious New World Order desire to cull the world’s population, we are living in dangerous times. So much so that writer/director Ciaran Foy’s Citadel definitely feels like it is forging similar territory introduced to the genre and cinema itself by Val Lewton some 60 years ago.
Foy’s picture is, first and foremost, a film about a palpable fear brought on when the film’s young protagonist watches – not once, but twice – as those he loves are brutalized and/or snatched away from him. His fear intensifies so unremittingly, with such grim realism, that we’re placed directly in the eye of the storm that is his constant state of terror.
Contributing greatly here is lead actor Aneurin Barnard as the young father Tommy. He delivers a performance so haunting it’s unlikely audiences will ever shake its full impact. Off the top of my head, I can think of very few (if any) scenes he does not appear in. We follow his story solely from his point of view and given that the character is almost always in a state of intense apprehension, the whole affair could have been utterly unbearable. He breathes such humanity into the role that we not only side with him, but I frankly defy anyone to NOT see aspects of who they are and what they feel within this indelibly overwrought character. (It’s such an extraordinary performance that in my 2012 round-up of the year in cinema over at my site Klymkiw Film Corner, I was compelled to bestow my own Best Actor accolade upon him.)
As the film progresses, Tommy lives alone in a desolate housing project – a single father alone with his baby. On the few occasions he must leave the house and enter a world of emptiness, squalor, constantly grey skies and interiors lit under harsh fluorescents, his head is down, his eyes only occasionally looking around for potential danger and/or to literally see where he is walking (or rather, scurrying to). Just as Tommy is constantly in a state of terror – so, unnervingly, are we.
There are seldom any points in the proceedings when we feel safe and when an occasional moment of warmth creeps into Tommy’s existence, the effect is like finding an oasis in the Sahara. Unfortunately (and brilliantly), Foy’s screenplay doesn’t allow safe harbour for too long. Dramatically, we’re almost constantly assaulted with natural story beats that yank us from our (and Tommy’s) ever so brief moments of repose.
Tranquillity is a luxury and Foy fashions a living hell that plunges both the audience and Tommy into the here and now as opposed to a very near future. Citadel sadly reflects a reality that pretty much exists on many streets in every city of the world. This is an increasing reality of contemporary existence and like all great science fiction, the film’s dystopian vision acts as a wake-up call that hopefully will touch many beyond the converted.
Things must change or more and more of us will be experiencing this. We can, like Tommy does for a good part of the film, shove our heads, ostrich-like, into the false safety offered under the sand, but sooner or later we/he will be ripped out of the temporary safety of darkness to face two distinct realities: the horror of the world and, even worse, the horror of his/our own fear and cowardice. Neither are happy prospects to be emblazoned upon anyone’s hearts and minds when the meeting of one’s maker is not far behind.
Tommy will have to make the right decision. He’ll need to become proactive in finding his inner strength to fight for what is right. The options are black and white. Fight and die trying, or just die.
Now, before you think I’m suggesting the film is more starkly depressing than Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), first remember that this is, indeed, a horror film and Foy jangles our nerves with the panache of a master. Have no doubts going in – this movie will scare the living bejesus out of you. It is, on that level, one hell of a ride.
The other happy element at play is a character rendered by the phenomenal actor James Cosmo. Now if you thought Gene Hackman was suitably two-fisted as the stalwart man of the cloth in Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), he is, in the parlance of louts the world over, a ‘pussy’ compared to Cosmo. Cosmo plays the most mentally unbalanced, kick-ass, foul-mouthed priest I’ve seen on film in some time – possibly of ALL time.
The Good Father knows the score, and then some. To paraphrase the tagline from the delightfully ludicrous Stallone cop picture Cobra (1986): ‘Fear’s a disease. The Good Father is the CURE!!!’ The few people left of good character in this world of empty, battle-torn housing projects all believe The Good Father is completely off his rocker.
Cosmo’s performance is stellar and, as The Good Father, he adds one extremely salient detail to Foy’s film – humour. Great genre pictures always have some element of humour – not of the tongue-in-cheek variety, but the kind that’s rooted in the central dramatic action of the narrative. The other great thing about The Good Father is his sense of Faith – and, believe me, it’s not necessarily residing in honour of the God of Abraham. He really only has faith in one thing amidst the dark dystopian days Foy etches so indelibly: survival.
At first, Tommy is intimidated by the curmudgeonly bonkers priest, but over time, it becomes obvious this slightly fallen Man o’ God is the only one who makes sense. Something is rotten to the core and Our Father has a plan to root out the pestilence.
You see, there is an infection.
Have I mentioned the infection yet?
I’ll let you discover it yourself.
As my regular readers are aware, I do everything in my power to know as little about a movie before I see it. I was so happy to know NOTHING about this movie prior to seeing it save for the title. The fact that I saw it at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival was also, by osmosis, a tiny giveaway since this stellar event’s programmers are delectably twisted sick puppies. That said, I knew nothing – just as I hope YOU will attempt to keep things before seeing Citadel.
The script, as well written as it is, hits a few (perfectly acceptable) marks that telegraphed a handful of items to me (and no doubt to a select few others) while watching the film, so there is little gained in pointing in their direction. In spite of this, I was quite unprepared for the full, heart-stopping, scream-inducing (yes, I screamed like some old grandmother), vomit-inspiring, drawer-filling (with, of course, your excretion of choice – I demurely keep mine to myself), flat-out dizzying, jack-hammering appalling climax of pure, sickening, unadulterated terror.
This is one mighty mo-fo of a scary-ass picture. The mise en scène is dazzling and the tale is rooted in both a humanity and reality that will wallop close to home for many. There’s nary a misstep in any of the performances and as the movie inches, like Col. Walter E. Kurtz’s ‘snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor’, Foy plunges us into an abyss at the top of the stairs.
In Apocalypse Now (1979), Kurtz (with Marlon Brando’s expert nasal intonations) summed up the image of the snail on the straight razor thusly: ‘That’s my dream!’
Frankly, Citadel is MY dream of one great horror movie.
It’s no dream.
Citadel is a bloody nightmare!