CIFF: Citadel, by Aaron Pinkston
A part of the Chicago International Film Festival’s After Dark Competition, Ciaran Foy’s urban horror film Citadel aptly mixes a zombie-style horror film with a psychological drama. Without much set up, the film opens with the vicious attack of a young man’s pregnant wife in their apartment complex. After his wife dies in the hospital, thankfully their baby is saved, Tommy becomes a serious agoraphobe, deathly afraid of leaving his house. But when the faceless hoodlums who killed his wife threaten again, he takes sides with an old priest and blind girl to overcome his fear and protect his family. The film does a fantastic job building a strange, but believable world of ultra-violence and mayhem nicely, even when it tries to hold on to specific themes too tightly.
For this type of small-scale horror film that relies so much on the psychological state of its main character, the world building is incredibly important. The world of Citadel isn’t exactly our world, but a stretched exaggeration of it, where the urban Irish setting feels excessively dreary, dilapidated and always on the edge of breaking into violence. We also have to believe in the state of Tommy, as the film ultimately is hinged on the actor’s performance. If we don’t buy into him being absolutely terrified of the world around him, we’re not going to experience the world effectively and probably won’t particularly care what happens to him along the way. Thankfully, the film quite nails both of these aspects. The world feels dystopian without any obvious set dressing — there is appropriate bleakness to the environment that makes it familiar, but a little bit off. I also need to specifically mention the performance of Aneurin Barnard, who plays this meek, paranoid character quite well. He especially shines in the small scenes without obvious horrors, adding the tension that something terrible may just happen in the next frame.
Where the film falters a bit is its take on the idea of fear (a huge theme of the film) and various character perspectives on this world. Though the work of Polanski would seem to be a fitting comparison to Citadel, but it doesn’t have the “world is basically fine, but the character has gone mad” quality. Instead, this world seems to be quite mad, which has driven the main character to his fractured state. Still, there are characters in the film and a lot of dialogue spent to putting things into a certain perspective, denying that this world is inherently evil. We see scenes where Tommy is being treated for his crippling fear, and we are told about how victims often become victims again directly because of their fear — by showing their fear, they become easy targets. I’m sure there is psychological truth to this theory and many of the scenes that explore this aren’t bad within themselves, but so much talk on the subject ultimately dampens the brutal fun of the film.
The theme of fear extends beyond that, and is the thing that most keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending this film. In the first half of the film, a lot of time is spent to desperately explain the reasons for violence that occur, but the film always feels at its best when the violence seems to happen for no reason. The opening moments work so well not because we fully understand the implications of fear and how it creates victims, but because the attack is unannounced and seemingly random. Working with the theories the film explores, I can’t help but feel that Tommy shouldn’t not be afraid so he won’t be a victim, but so he can simply survive in this crazy violent world. Citadel works away from being just a pulpy and visceral horror film, which I think it could be great as, and instead gives us too much psychological explanation — we get everything we need to know in the creepy environments and the look on Tommy’s face.
The horror comes from a group of hooded children that viciously attack everything in sight. They seem to exist more like wolves or pack animals than people, which gives them the slightly-off feel that the film wonderfully displays in other areas. We also smartly don’t get a good look at these kids, we see them in the corners of the frame or behind the foreground action. As we learn more about them throughout the film (and we don’t learn more than we should, though we do come close), its clear that they don’t quite have cinematic counterparts, at least that I can think of — they aren’t quite zombies, not quite animals. Their function in the film lies somewhere close to 28 Days Later and The Descent, and when its at its best, the film’s feel hits the heights of those films. During the film’s final setpiece, which takes place in an abandoned apartment where the feral children have taken up residency (one that looks suspiciously similar to the one featured in the recent action film The Raid: Redemption), the claustrophobic setting and the nature of the children come together quite nicely. When we ultimately see how these monsters are designed, it takes in the film’s theme of fear in a sensible way, but not enough to excuse the excessive psycho-babble that has already taken place.