Director: Ciarán Foy
Starring: Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku, Amy Shiels, Jake Wilson
Winner of the Midnighter Audience Award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Irish writer-director Ciarán Foy’s psychological horror movie “Citadel” centers on a stricken agoraphobe who’s struggling to raise his newborn daughter alone and protect her from a roving band of vicious thugs that seem to be stalking them. Occasional bursts of effective atmospheric dread punctuate what is otherwise a thinly imagined genre exercise that would work far better as a short film.
When his pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) is brutally attacked in front of his very eyes by a group of strangers, Tommy Cowley (Aneurin Barnard) finds his world shattered. After she passes away, he leaves the decaying apartment complex that was the scene of the assault and holes up in a new flat with his young daughter — leaving only to take part in intense therapy sessions aimed at helping bring some sense of normalcy and stability to his life. Soon, though, this same little pack of hooded Jawas is back, terrorizing Tommy and trying to snatch his daughter. While social worker Marie (Wunmi Mosaku) tries to counsel Tommy, an irascible priest (James Cosmos) and a telepathically gifted kid (Jake Wilson) peddle a darker story about this potentially supernatural gang, and what Tommy must do to save what remains of his family.
The film’s tone and collection of below-the-line artisans is definitely its strongest selling point. Tomandandy supplies a solid score, and Tim Fleming’s cinematography is as bleak and oppressive as any early Mike Leigh film, almost getting between a viewer and the air in their lungs. Awash in blue-grey hues and efficiently scummy production design, “Citadel” unfolds in a world where with an almost aromatic displeasure to every scene.
Its story, however — which in stronger hands could be read as a class parable — is a muddled, pointless mess. At it first seems that Foy is aiming for illuminating a panicked, paranoid state of mind — something on the order of a mélange of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intruders” (itself a ridiculous movie) by way of Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist.” There exists the potential for an elongated sense of woozy dread, as viewers are left guessing about dream states, flashbacks, alternate realities or an unreliable narrator.
Without giving anything away, the potential for any interesting exploration melts away pretty quickly. In its place, “Citadel” just becomes a wandering collection of scenes in search of a grander point. The dialogue is inane (“They can’t see us” makes four — count ’em, four — appearances), Cosmos’ acting is overheated, and Tommy, as written, turns on a dime and becomes a suddenly emboldened and heroic figure in the finale, for no particularly good reason. Barnard’s lead performance is one of full investment, and a certain feverish intensity. But he’s too frequently grasping at straws, because Foy’s script for “Citadel” gives him nothing of convincing substance to hold onto.
Written by: Brent Simon