Films that deal with American slavery often focus on physical violence, projecting psychic scars onto slaves as a consequence of it. There are some movies, though, that more fully concentrate on American slavery’s lasting emotional wounds, in which hearts stay entrapped even after bodies have been freed. The Retrieval, which begins in the rural South in 1864, is one.
It follows Will (Ashton Sanders), a troubled black teen who makes his living by earning and betraying the trust of fellow free blacks on behalf of a pack of white bounty hunters. Will travels north with his brute capitalist uncle Marcus (Keston John) to bring back soulful freedman Nate (Tishuan Scott) to be slaughtered, with the cover story that Nate’s brother is sick and needs his care.
Tension forms between the three as they move past dead trees in barren fields. To kill-or-be-killed Marcus, Nate’s an “uppity nigger”; for Nate, filled with pained memories of his lost wife and child, Marcus fails life through lack of love. Will, who is himself haunted by his father’s absence, hovers uncertainly between the men’s perspectives, with his guilt and doubts reflected through shifting camerawork that often seems unsettled, as though sizing up who the youth can trust.
Writer-director Chris Eska’s second feature, like his contemporary Texas-set immigrant tale August Evening (2007), shows uprooted people struggling to find new homes. Will learns that he is free to go where he chooses, but that in order to do so he must first free himself.