With the popularity and success of films like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave,” the slave narrative seems to be a popular trope of recent cinema. While combining elements of the slave narrative with those of a Western, “The Retrieval” finds its own voice, clearly distinguishing itself from convention.
“Retrieval” is about 13-year-old Will (Ashton Sanders), who is sent to the North with an older adviser, Marcus (Keston John), to bring runaway slave Nate (Tishuan Scott) back to the South. Although Will is slightly stoic, he is quick to make friends with Nate.
The Civil War is always on the outskirts of the path they walk — they move along their route, always aware of the danger with gunshots and cannon fire often heard in the background.
While the white men normally required only the retrieval of runaway slaves, Nate’s case is unique. He is not a runaway, but a freedman worth a decent sum of money. The white men intend to steal Nate’s belongings, offering a share of the money to Will and Marcus.
When a battle breaks out before them, Will and Marcus are left in the woods to fend for themselves. Will must consider the moral dilemma that has been developing since he was assigned his task — does he disobey his commands to bring Nate back to the South to be betrayed? Or should the teen team up with Nate and risk his life to fight against the white slave owners?
Thanks to performances from newcomers Sanders, John and particularly Scott, “Retrieval” has moments that are particularly poignant. Even with its dismal, unsaturated color scheme, the cinematography is nothing short of beautiful, depicting large, bucolic scenery.
The impressive lighting design creates gorgeous contrast, and the camerawork reveals a real grittiness. The strong composition puts the audience directly into the melancholic atmosphere and high stress involved in the slave trade.
The film shines most when it sticks to the personal elements of its narrative, particularly the relationship between the oddball pair of Nate and Will. Whenever the film diverts its focus, it does not hold together quite as well due to a contrived plot and budgetary constraints.
Overall, “The Retrieval” is a character driven drama that strikes its audience to the core, bringing up horrific tragedies that are deeply embedded in American history.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 2 print edition. David Leidy is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.