Editor’s note: another SXSW feature is hitting limited release, so please enjoy this Citadel review, originally published on March 19, 2012.
Tommy and Joanne are a young couple about to welcome their first child into the world, and to celebrate the imminent arrival (and to feel safer day to day) they’re moving out of their sketchy apartment building known as the Citadel. But before she can even make it to the waiting taxi Joanne is violently assaulted and left with a dirty syringe hanging from her very pregnant belly. Tommy witnesses the attack but is helpless to stop it.
The hospital manages to deliver their newborn son, but Joanne falls into a coma from which she never awakens. The weeks and months that follow see Tommy struggle to leave his new flat even as pressures from Social Services and his landlord begin to mount. He lives in fear of the hooded teenage hooligans responsible for his wife’s death, and the night he decides to get the hell out of town with his child is the night they come calling.
They take something very precious to him, and now, with the help of a crazy old priest and a kindly nurse, he’ll have to find the strength to stand up to his fears and save what remains of his family. Even if that means returning to the Citadel.
Writer/director Ciaran Foy’s feature debut is an atmospheric and occasionally frightening slice of Irish horror with something to say about the roles we play in society. The “monsters” of the tale are a gang of restless and nameless youths with shrouded faces and gnarled hands who terrorize the night and may be responsible for the recent disappearances of several children. Foy is juggling three themes here behind the horror, but the two most obvious are also the weakest elements.
First up is the obvious condemnation of youths gone wild and society’s allowance of their inner-city antics. It’s said a culture can be judged based on their treatment of animals and prisoners, but just as damning should be the way elevate the family in words but fail them in action. The lack of supervision and love can create a dangerous void. The less specific theme at play here is fear itself. The script constantly reminds viewers about fear being a visible weakness and one that can literally be smelled by evil-doers. Wash it away (metaphorically or with the help of a blind boy) and you can slip past evil unscathed.
Far more subtle and successful is an at times harrowing look at the fear of fatherhood and familial responsibility. Tommy couldn’t protect his wife, he can’t quite connect with his son and he’s terrified by what are essentially children who’ve been raised without the love and care of proper families. He’s emotionally and physically helpless until his love for his son forces him to act.
Some creepy and unsettling scenes bookend the film and manage some legitimate scares along the way, but much of the film is a series of frustrations. Tommy is a ridiculously passive character, and while it’s mostly by design it still works to detract and distance him from the viewers’ concern for his well-being. The threats are physical beings here, almost all of them smaller and shorter than Tommy, but his refusal to even take a swing at one is annoying as hell. (And don’t get me started on the twice-ignored option of running the fuckers over with a car.)
Citadel is a solid enough horror thriller anchored by a strong lead performance and an earnest heart. The second and third acts could have used a polish to punch up some otherwise dull happenings, but the film remains another fine genre offering from the UK.
The Upside: Some creepy imagery; strong performances from Barnard and Mosaku
The Downside: Lead character is extremely (and almost irredeemably) frustrating and passive; film’s logic regarding the feral children is a bit loose
On the Side: Citadel just won the SXSW 2012 Audience award in the Midnighters category