Director: Ciaran Foy
Runtime: 84 minutes
Writer/director Ciaran Foy found the perfect way to distract his audience from questioning the often clichéd actions of horror film protagonists. Instead of making Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) naive or stupid like so many of the genre’s heroes walking headlong into danger or hiding in plain sight, a diagnosis of agoraphobia keeps him perpetually on edge and thus easily forgiven for lapses in judgment. Crippled by the vastness of the world outside his door and the tragedy it holds, this young man is naturally flooded by fear. So when demon, zombie children begin to stalk his home in hopes of stealing his daughter Ilsa, his inability to run serves the plot while also authentically depicting a serious condition. Foy hits the creative jackpot by killing two birds with one stone and Citadel becomes a much more effective thriller as a result.
The reason Tommy is how he is stems from a harrowing opening scene of he and his pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) moving out of their recently condemned tower block. Waiting by the apartment door while her husband takes their possessions to the car, no one would expect the three kids in hoodie sweatshirts approaching her to be anything more than neighborhood punks. Caught in the elevator during a malfunction of its doors, however, Tommy watches the impossible. Helpless to do anything but scream, the distraught soon-to-be-father witnesses the kids’ feral brutality as Joanne is left battered, bruised, and stuck with hypodermic needles. Rushing her to the hospital too late, his final night of freedom before the phobia takes hold ends with a newborn baby in his arms and a comatose wife left behind.
Shot with a keen sense of suspense through the small elevator window and long, dark corridors, Foy effectively handles the scene’s horror. We only catch glimpses of lifeless, dead hands peeking out from the children’s sleeves to go with their high-pitched squeals. More animal than evil, their antagonistic force is a tangible adversary seen for what they really are in the eyes of a jaded priest (James Cosmo) as well as merely troubled souls in need of assistance by an idealistic caretaker in Marie (Wunmi Mosaku). Both characters try to inform upon Tommy’s understanding, but he can’t fully comprehend the kids’ capabilities until confronted by their true power. Never in-your-face enough to appear fake or over-the-top, Foy keeps us at a distance from the violence to linger on his lead’s heavy breathing and uncontrollable fright instead.
A simple story with no plot other than stopping the evil that took his wife, Barnard’s portrayal of Tommy’s neuroses becomes the key to success. Is he blowing what he sees out of proportion because of his fear of outsiders? Is he so on edge that the curse-riddled caution spewed by the priest after Joanne’s funeral was imagined? Is Marie right to alleviate his self-imposed torture in order to find a way to move on by learning to live for his daughter? These kinds of questions remain unanswered for a good portion of the movie because of the performance’s realistic debilitation. Tommy can’t physically carry Ilsa from their home when a hooded figure appears by the door at night because he can barely get her stroller down the stairs in broad daylight with a friend’s help.
Existing above our speculation about these children being demons or the stories from the priest explaining how they’re blind and only able to see fright is the concept of overcoming the psychological obstacles we readily construct around us. Collateral damage is lost on Tommy’s journey so he can fully grasp the stakes at hand and the bond of love through blood is showcased after realizing he may lose his final link to Joanne. It’s only when Ilsa is taken that Tommy awakens to the priest’s rather rash proposal of ending these faceless kids’ path of destruction once and for all. To do so means returning to where it all started and learning the facts behind the evil’s genesis—a revelation equally cool for its lack of supernatural superfluity and unforgivably contrived in its tacked-on existence.
Foy walks a similar fine line throughout as atmosphere trumps story and performance resonates over character. On paper Marie and the priest are terribly one-dimensional yet Mosaku adds a believable compassion while Cosmo a perfectly dialed tenacity respectively. Likewise, the mood cultivated with its zombie-esque terror and periphery roles such as a child saved from the devil’s den (Jake Wilson‘s Danny) help forgive the A to B narrative devoid of any side plots or enhancing exposition. What we see is what we get and on some level that is completely refreshing. Letting a uniquely damaged soul be our entry point into the tale doesn’t hurt matters and Barnard rises to the occasion by keeping our attention firmly locked to his emotional fragility. It’s the perfect distraction, keeping us from delving too deep below the surface and therefore letting Citadel‘s visceral power grab hold.
Citadel is now playing in select cities.
Latest posts from The Film Stage