Nate (Tishuan Scott, left) and Will (Ashton Sanders) share a dangerous journey in The Retrieval
After being nearly absent from American multiplexes for decades, slavery has returned at the center of three very different films. Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained (2012) was a bullet-riddled Americanization of the spaghetti western. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) won a Best Picture Oscar for its grim retelling of a real-life nightmare. And now we have The Retrieval, a low-budget effort that makes up in originality what it lacks in production values. The indie flick may be the most surprising take yet on the shameful institution of American slavery. Written and directed by Chris Eska, it stars Ashton Sanders as Will, an African-American boy who plays a perverse role in the Civil War. Along with his Uncle Marcus (Keston John), the fatherless 14-year-old helps a white bounty hunter named Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) recapture escaped slaves. After their latest successful mission, Burrell gives Marcus and Will a particularly important assignment: They must find Nate (Tishuan Scott), a freed slave who now digs graves for the Union Army, and persuade him to return to his old plantation. Their bait is a brother who supposedly is dying of consumption, but Nate actually is to be executed for an old offense. If they succeed, Will and Marcus will be rewarded with a lucrative payment. If they fail, Burrell promises, he’ll hunt them down and kill them. Marcus is depicted as a hardened, desperate man who does what he must to survive, but young Will is a different matter. The teenager’s inner conflicts can be seen clearly in his troubled eyes, especially after he meets Nate and finds him to be a tough but principled man who is as lonely as he is, having been forced to leave his enslaved wife behind. A few flaws mar Eska’s film. Though cinematographer Yasu Tanida depicts the era beautifully and mostly convincingly, a farmhouse that appears in an early scene seems too modern and tidy to have existed in the 1860s. And though the acting is uniformly good, the dialect-heavy dialogue is often hard to decipher, particularly when Scott’s Nate delivers it in a gruff mumble. The biggest flaw, though, is more central: Despite brief encounters with violence, it soon becomes clear that the whole story revolves around Will’s troubled conscience and the question of whether he’ll tell Nate the truth before it’s too late. The boy’s indecisiveness is stretched out so long that the situation’s inherent tension eventually dissipates. Though not as engrossing as it could be, The Retrieval remains an ingenious creation: a morality tale about a teenager coming of age under the worst possible circumstances. Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5) The Retrieval opened Friday (May 2) at the Gateway Film Center. Visit for show times.