I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
For almost the entire second and third acts of Citadel—a scrappy little Irish production—I was certain that the events being presented were meant to be viewed ambiguously. Not only do the story beats become more dependent on supernatural explanations and a convoluted origin story for the villains, the three characters the viewer is eventually asked to follow are all handicapped by psychological or physical limitations that make their viewpoint suspect. But writer/director Ciaran Foy never tips the film over into the realm of “is it real or not” and I was left uncertain of how I felt about the places the film takes me.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) is a guy with issues. When the film opens, he and his beautiful, very pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) are moving out of a condemned housing project. Their happiness at leaving the dangerous building behind is cut short when Joanne is attacked by three feral children while Tommy is stuck in a malfunctioning elevator. While Elsa, their baby is successfully delivered, Joanne slips into a coma.
Several months later, Tommy is living in a separate area of the housing project, literally in the shadow of the high rise in which Joanne was attacked. The experience has left him crippled by agoraphobia that kept him secluded in his home for six months, while still managing to care for Elsa. While he makes tentative steps into the world through the help of group therapy and the friendship of Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), a nurse at Joanne’s hospice, the crippling fear he lives in on a daily basis makes the most basic of functions difficult to handle. When Joanne is taken off life-support and allowed to die and the unhinged local Priest (James Cosmo) warns that the feral children are coming to take away Elsa, Tommy loses what tiny bit of control he has over his fear.
The point where I became uncertain of how to take the events in the film was right after Joanne’s funeral. The Priest, a foul-mouthed man who leads around a young blind boy named Danny (Jake Wilson) wherever he goes, not only warns Tommy that the children will be back for Elsa, but tries to convince him that the children are actually something other than human. Tommy is shown to be living in such fear and paranoia that I wondered whether or not to believe what he was hearing. By the time Tommy, the Priest, and Danny find themselves back in the building where Joanne was attacked, trying to cleanse it of the creatures posing as children, the film is so far removed from the study of how fear can cripple a person, I had lost my bearings.
That loss of bearings extends to how I feel about the film. Citadel is the rare film where I am not sure if I like it or hate it. It occupies a strange emotional place where I feel numb when I think about it. For me, this is an unnatural sensation, especially when it is obvious that Foy wants the viewer to truly feel the enormity of Tommy’s journey.
Technically, the film is well put together with Foy showing a solid ability to build suspense. The moody cinematography by Tim Fleming is appropriately shadowy and highlights the squalor of the locations. The performances are all quite good with Barnard expertly straddling the line between sympathy and lunacy (with his large, expressive eyes and short stature, he looks like a haunted version of Elijah Wood). Even the slightly forced ideological conversations about the merits of dealing with crime in low-income areas through preventive measures as opposed to punishment go down easier than they should. So why does the film leave me feeling nothing?
I wish I had an answer to that question, but I don’t. Everything about the way Citadel is put together makes me want to like it. I certainly admire what Foy and his cast have accomplished on an obviously small budget, but I don’t know that it eventually adds up to much. I hate to be so ambivalent about the film, but it’s my honest reaction.
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