The Retrieval’s opening credits begin nearly 20 minutes into the film’s running time, but that’s one of few remarkable aesthetic traits found in this impotent Civil War drama. It’s 1864 and Will (Ashton Sanders) is a boy working for a bounty hunter, Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), who sends him and Marcus (Keston John) into the North to recover Nate (Tishuan Scott), a fugitive freedman. Initial scenes are largely dialogue free, as Will succeeds in an early mission to appease Burrell, whose scarred face and scowling philosophies suggest him as the evil force of writer-director Chris Eska’s stagnant, humorless coming-of-age register (“If a man don’t want to be found, there’s many places he can go”). These tonal stabilities are confirmed once Will and Nate end up alone, with numerous dialogue scenes meant to intensify Will’s ethical confliction between performing the titular demands of a slave-owning racist (in order to preserve himself) or save his newfound father figure from certain death.
Sanders and Scott share an intimacy in several scenes during the film’s second half that compels through a natural, fluid manner that’s in symbiosis with the film’s themes. But The Retrieval is only useful in the style of a history textbook; Eska’s script is more a report of his research, largely devoid of significance beyond inoffensively rendering historical events. Likewise, Yasu Tanida’s cinematography and Matthew Wiedemann’s piano-driven score are requisite presentations of the material that offers little by way of enlivening Eska’s dutiful historiography. These critiques aren’t slanders on pure genre filmmaking, since The Retrieval is less old-fashioned than demure and passé, evoking the visual style and rhythms of a 1990s made-for-TV movie rather than a daring, revisionist independent feature. In this sense, Eska could be seen to eschew the grotesque pastiche of Django Unchained or the hyper-realism of 12 Years a Slave, but The Retrieval is only a cultural armistice if one misinterprets undercooked for minimal.