CITADEL (2012) ****
Dir. Ciarán Foy
A New Appreciation
By Greg Klymkiw
Context is Everything: Big Screen Pictures on a Big Screen
I first saw Citadel, Ciarán Foy's contemporary masterpiece of horror, during the 2012 edition of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF), one of the most genial celebrations of genre cinema in the world. Blood geysers copiously from the screens at TADFF as both audiences and programmers take deliciously perverse delight in as much carnage wrought by filmmakers as is humanly possible.
But, it's not always about the blood.
Every year, without fail, I discover one or two gems that scare the faecal matter out of me because they tap into quiet, creepy, subtle and intelligently rendered fears that haunt all of us. And though there will be blood in such pictures, it's meted out sparingly. Like, for example, Citadel.
TADFF prides itself on presenting genre films designed for BIG-SCREEN THEATRICAL VIEWING, but due to the rather idiotic vagaries of an ever-changing landscape of big-box theatrical exhibition, far too many worthy movies are forced to bypass being exhibited the way movies are ultimately meant to be seen. Citadel , of course, demands a big screen. Thanks to festivals like TADFF, this is - however briefly - possible.
TADFF, like many good festivals, endeavours to present filmmakers in front of each film to introduce it and then to engage in a post-show Q and A. Mr. Foy had been tripping the festival light fantastic for quite some time and when TADFF rolled around, he was in the midst of writing his next feature film. Understandably, but alas, he was not available to attend.
This was fine by me. I was pretty fucking shagged out from several days in a row of feasting my eyes on all manner of carnage and was in just the perfect mood to sit quietly in the cinema and see what I assumed would be another splatter-fest, but sans the usual raucous, celebratory shenanigans pervading screenings where filmmakers were in attendance.
I sunk deeply into my front row seat.
The lights dimmed.
My virginal plunge into Citadel began.
The word "trinity" is derived from the Latin noun "trinitas" which is interpreted by Jesus-Believers as "three are one", though what it means literally is the number "three" (or "triad"). The Greek equivalent also means the number "three", or more literally, a set or grouping of three. In most Christian religions (save for some of the more fruit-cake offshoots - well, in fairness, those that are marginally nuttier than Catholicism), the trinity is recognized as The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit (or my preference as a Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholic - The Holy Ghost - YEAH!). And yes, indeed, when you see us wing-nutted Catholics (practising or lapsed) crossing ourselves, it is indeed our tribute to God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Ghost which is the collective essence of what we're honouring with our pagan ritual.
For me, trinity is a word I'm fond of using to describe elements of storytelling. An example of this comes from the idea that doing things in threes (or higher "odd" numbers) gives your story more bang for the buck. Got a running gag? Great. When a movie presents it twice or four times, it's usually not as effective as when it's rendered three (or five, or seven, or - God forbid - nine) times. Three, however, is a decent enough rule of thumb when crafting a story. A four-act story just doesn't seem to cut it. Tell it in three-acts (properly, mind you), then you're usually on-track.
Of course, trinity can also be played out as a symbolic and/or subtextual storytelling tool. However, it won't work if the storytelling overall is falling flat on its face. Using subtext under such circumstances becomes ham-fisted and pretentious - drawing us completely out of what narrative might remain. This, is never a problem in Citadel. Within both visual and narrative contexts, Foy's extraordinary tale is ultimately rooted deeply in the notion of "trinity", but on a subtextual level it's a visually powerful approach to cinematic storytelling - especially given the harrowing narrative he spins.
Because Foy builds "trinity" into both his narrative and visual design, it provides ample opportunities to tell the story with as many evocative qualities as possible. What separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the filmmakers with vision from the filmmakers who are little more than camera jockeys (the latter term applied to by-the-numbers TV drama directors), is the ability to dazzle us visually, but in a manner wherein the imagery doesn't overtake the narrative, but compliments it.
This works two-fold. First of all, it allows (and/or forces) the filmmaker with vision to integrate what I like to refer to (if you will), the visual subtext into the opening of the film - to establish the mise-en-scène, to provide gripping and visually arresting images to draw us into the narrative and to propel us ever-further into the events of the opening - to keep us guessing so we want more story information to answer our questions as to where the story is going and ultimately, to build an opening sequence that is going to knock us on our collective asses. Secondly, the integration of said visual subtext throughout the film shapes and hones the progression of dramatic sequences (and individual scenes) so that we get a series of almost epiphanous dollops of narrative zingers. These work to propel us even further towards the climax of the film and in so doing, provide exponential gains in terms of visceral responses to the narrative. This ultimately provides a climactic sequence that builds on the elements of the opening and delivers something that not only knocks us on our duffs, but slams us repeatedly with the force of a baseball bat every single time we attempt to get up. In Quentin Tarantino's honour, one could demurely refer to this storytelling technique as the "Bear Jew Triple-Ass Turnbuckle Trinity". But, let's not.
From the very beginning of his film, Foy bombards us with sets of three items of note within the images that are used to tell the story. And they are powerful images that build the narrative cinematically to always draw us forward. Given that Citadel is a horror film rooted in the theme of fear, images of trinity are especially salient. Our main character Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) witnesses (not just once, but twice), people he loves being snatched away from him. This set of tragedies manifests itself within Tommy as deep crippling agoraphobia and unless he's able to face his fear (a fear, I'd argue that is a fear of fear itself), he'll suffer a sickening third and maybe deadliest tragedy of all.
One of the first exposures to trinity is the "citadel" itself, a bleakly decrepit housing project with a centre tower as its bulwark and two smaller buildings flanking either side and set further back. Drably coloured grey cement, set against murky blueish-grey skies, it's a formidable and chilling image to dive into at the film's beginning. It stands like some crumbling urban architectural representation of Cavalry during Christ's crucifixion.
|Bad Shit goes on in the projects - CITADEL|
(Oh, and before you think I'm extolling some foul "God Squad" picture aimed to reel in Christian viewers, you'll see soon enough that Citadel is the complete antithesis to that horrendous genre.)
Now, once inside the Citadel, we're introduced to Apartment 111.
|1+1+1=3 Trinity in the projects - CITADEL|
Some activity on the other side of the door causes the middle number to become unhinged and flop down. Surely this can't be a good sign.
|When Trinity is unhinged, we know shit's gonna happen - CITADEL|
When the door opens, we're introduced to a young couple who are preparing to leave the condemned housing project for a new life. And indeed, Foy reveals a literal new life - a child is clearly growing within the woman's belly. One can see immediately how such opening moments in the hands of a mere camera jockey could be rendered in a dull, by the numbers manner to give establishing information ONLY in a race to get to something suspensefully titillating. Such images would be a by-rote series of pure informational shots. Foy, however, delivers sheer, unadulterated suspense from the very beginning and places us firmly in a world that gets increasingly tossed on its noggin as the film progresses. All is rooted in character, narrative and theme. It also reveals a distinctive voice off the bat.
With his cinematographer Tim Fleming, production designer and art director Tom Sayer and Andy Thomson respectively, Foy serves up a sumptuous (and dramatically apt) look for the film, betraying its low budget nature so that the film's cost is not even a point to consider whilst watching it. This is not to say the "look" is picture-postcard in any way, shape or form. The look is instead one of unremitting bleakness, but it is rendered so expertly and artistically, that shot after shot reminds me of the constant refrain in W.B. Yeats' great poem "Easter, 1916" wherein he refers to the notion that "a terrible beauty is born." And so it is with the masterful look and direction of Citadel.
Too many contemporary films capture bleak imagery with slap-dash sloppiness, but Foy and his team deliver one clearly intentional shot after another that create an indelible and stunningly dichotomous "terrible beauty" that infuses the heart and soul of this film.
Note the lighting, design and composition of this shot as Tommy anxiously tries to get back to his pregnant wife in a grindingly slow elevator. Even though we've been given nothing overt to fear, everything leading up to and including this shot has been slowly keeping us on edge and with the camera rooted claustrophobically close (but not TOO close) and set effectively in what came to be Howard Hawks' almost-trademark eye-level positioning, we're plunged into Tommy's anxiety with the skill one would expect of a master team of filmmakers.
Have I mentioned yet how fucking extraordinary this film is?
|Elevators in the projects are slow... and scary - CITADEL|
With one salient exception (which, I'll not give away), Foy makes the wise decision to always stay in the sphere of his main character Tommy. Every shot is either WITH Tommy, from his POV or from an angle/perspective he'd be able to have a view of/from. Given that we're dealing with a film about fear and specifically, a horror film where an even bigger challenge than the "monster(s)" is overcoming agoraphobia, this is a perfect approach.
Some might argue it is an OBVIOUS approach as if "obvious" is a dirty word, but for my money it's only a verboten epithet if and when it's the only way to describe that which is mediocre and/or barely (or maddeningly) competent. I'm much happier when a filmmaker "idiot proofs" the work so the audience is not lost for too long without their questions and/or need for information being addressed - either directly, or indirectly with an even more delicious tidbit of information.
In creating a film narrative, the worst thing one can do is force the audience to ask questions which are not answered - especially when those questions are nagging at an audience to the point where they're pulled out of the story and subsequently miss out on even more story beats because the filmmaker was too stupid (and/or pretentious) to pinch a loaf or two that forces their viewers to be ruminating rather than paying attention. Where Foy takes leaps and bounds beyond most young filmmakers (and many old ones who should know better) is how he maintains his proximity to Tommy while also keeping to the subtext of trinity.
For example, once Tommy's elevator reaches the right floor, Foy serves up an incredibly simple, effective and chilling shot from Tommy's POV through the broken elevator doors. There's a creepy inevitability to the contents of the shot, yet you're still jangled into filling your drawers with some manner of unmentionable viscous-like matter.
In the following frame-capture, however, is the subtle use of trinity. On one side of the window is Tommy and on the other is his wife and unborn child. Sorry to sound like an egghead here, but bear with me, as this point has more to do with intelligent, personal filmmaking than anything artsy-fartsy. Masters, like Hitchcock or Spielberg or Friedkin, et al will either be consciously and/or instinctively be choosing to utilize visual motifs that tie into both the narrative and psychology of their films.
Here, the chain of trinity between Father, Mother and Child is broken by an elevator door that's mechanically broken. It's not JUST the sudden terror of Tommy struggling to re-connect this chain and restore balance by rescuing (or at least giving it the old college try), but that what he sees are three hooded figures - another form of trinity in the middleground - that have an upper hand, threatening those he loves (and by extension, himself). Finally, there's the trinity employed within the composition itself - the doors in the foreground, the hooded figures in the middle and Tommy's wife further back.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what the best filmmakers do.
|A door that won't open. Three hooded figures. A Woman alone. CITADEL|
In the next two frame-captures we see Tommy in the bus shelter preparing to enter the bitter, cold, cruel world outside with the traditional manifestation of Trinity - he crosses himself.
In the Name of the Father, the Son and The Holy Ghost.
Great horror films in the western world often knew well enough to employ any number of Judeo-Christian images and rituals in an attempt to ward off evil. With increasing secularity in the world, contemporary horror films oft-abandon religion in both the passive form (as protection) and as purely aggressive weaponry (crosses thrust forward like swords against minions of the Devil or, in fact, the Devil himself). To the latter, none who see it, never, ever forget the image of trapping a vampire in the shadow of a windmill that projects the image of the crucifix upon the ground in Terence Fisher's extraordinary Brides of Dracula. Tommy's use of Old World Christian values here is a perfect element to weave into the narrative.
Lord (as He were) knows, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, the greatest horror film of all time is replete with mega-crucifix action. Not only that, it shares a wonderful thing with Citadel that all great horror films swap saliva over. In The Exorcist, Demon Pazuzu's shenanigans (which included grotesque head-spinning, crucifix-as-dildo-masturbatory-action and green pea vomit expulsion), were preceded by an hour of screen time devoted to the creepy and increasingly painful poking and prodding of the possessed 12-year-old girl by esteemed members of the medical profession. (God Bless the 70s - all the doctors smoke IN the fucking hospital, no less.) As realized by director William Friedkin, the cold and clinical approach to healing by inflicting the extremes of scientific exploration turn out to be equally harrowing as the grotesqueries of the Devil. Foy also plunges us into Tommy's illness with a similar realism. A wise move, indeed.
And with respect to the crucifix in The Exorcist, it's used by priests Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller to wear the Devil's minion down (Max believes, Miller less so). The cross ultimately turns out to be powerless and it's a Christ-like (Christ, the MAN) sacrifice on Jason Miller's part when he demands to be taken by the demon and then commits suicide to destroy the evil. Miller musters his strength of character and humanity to fight the evil. Tommy's faith in God gets him by (just barely), but when push comes to shove he digs a lot deeper than adherence to New Testament fairy tales to survive.
Though it's partially a matter of interpretation, there are, I think, enough visual signs to suggest that Tommy had most probably eschewed any deep adherence to Christian values long ago, but that his use of them now comes out of a sense of desperation - a kind of unconscious placebo effect or, if you will, a perverse Pavlovian Dog instinct to use the Holy Trinity to temper fear in hopes that it will ward off danger.
Mind and body are finally more powerful allies than faith in the Holy Trinity.
|FATHER. SON. HOLY GHOST. CITADEL|
|FATHER. SON. HOLY GHOST. CITADEL|
Notice above the sheet of paper affixed to the bus shelter behind Tommy - a tried and true storytelling prop, but one that's often shoehorned in with a bludgeon to get information across or worse, especially in low budget affairs, so poorly designed that instead of assisting the narrative, the audience is taken out of the story. Timing is also important when using such props as a narrative tool.
Turning your attention to the frame-capture below you'll see a punch-in on the same sheet of paper, a notice for a missing child. This shot comes at a perfect point in Tommy's story. His wife has given birth, but remains in a coma and not only is Tommy faced with being a single Dad, his agoraphobia increases a thousand-fold. After all, he has a baby to raise and protect in this dystopian world.
... and children, you see, are going missing in the projects.
Desperate disenfranchised parents are posting such notices where they can. This is not only an effective "milk-carton-like" piece of story information, but note again, the "terrible beauty" of the composition of the shot and how exquisitely designed everything within the frame is - from the Missing Child notice to the smoky, smudged and scratched window of the bus shelter that, through the glass, reveals a somewhat misshapen landscape - bleak and despair ridden.
This is no world for humanity, let alone children.
|In the projects, who can afford cartons of milk, anyway? CITADEL|
Another superb approach to visual storytelling is on view within the frame-capture below. First of all, there's the big picture as it's one of the very few wide shots in the film to deliver a magnificent snapshot of where Tommy and his baby live. This, very ironically, is where he and his wife were on the verge of moving before the tragic events in the film's opening. The condemned three-tower housing project looming over everything, the row of natty ground floor low-income townhouses and the huge sign in the right foreground that extols the grand design of the local government are not only powerful pieces of story information, but add to the visual design of claustrophobia by creating an environment that feels like it's closing in and practically crushing poor Tommy.
Dwarfed by the oppressive forces of squalor and fear, hunched over (as is his wont) while pushing the baby carriage forward, he passes by an abandoned vehicle. Foy and his team deliver a magnificently composed shot that's both aesthetically pleasing in terms of the "terrible beauty", but also provide a superb sense of spatial geography. (AFTER you see the film on DVD or Blu-Ray, be sure to take a look at the Making-of supplement. This will give you a better idea of how brilliant Foy and his team of collaborators were in their clever design of these and other visual elements in the film.)
The second important element of this shot is to draw your attention to the importance of always knowing in advance what your visual beats are as a director. Knowing what they must be involves delivering prose in the script that paints pictures with words, designing storyboards to ensure that you as a director can piece every needed story-beat together and finally, in so doing, ensure there will be enough footage that will provide an editor with elements needed to breathe life into the film during the post-production process. Throughout the film, Foy and company deliver one maximum impact shot after another, thus allowing editors Tony Kearns and Jake Roberts to weave the magic they do throughout the film - delivering on creepy, elongated suspense that sometimes makes you feel you're being dragged over a bed of hot coals in ultra-slow-motion (yes, for me, this IS a compliment - think Don't Look Now or The Innocents) and when needed (and in blessed moderation) the kind of shock cuts that send you up and out of your seat as if some John Holmes-sized dildo unexpectedly rammed up your asshole (most definitely a compliment - of the highest order).
Hell, go ahead and marry the shot above with the shot below - we go from creepy to mega-creepy. As Tommy moves forward with trepidation, the view of him from within the twisted metal hulk gives a sense of the eyes on him AND MOST IMPORTANTLY HIS BABY!!! As mentioned above, we're always in Tommy's sphere, but often when we're not in his point of view, there's always a profound, creepy sense of eyes upon him - not only when he is alone, but even in seemingly benign moments, the camera oppressively shoves itself towards him and voyeuristically encroaches upon his space - whether it be a specific character's POV or not - all eyes, real and imagined, are on Tommy.
He is, after all, an agoraphobe.
|LADIES & GENTS: ALL EYES ON THE AGORAPHOBE, PLEASE! CITADEL|
One of the most lovely touches in the narrative, is the introduction of the character Marie (the stunning and truly great actress Wunmi Mosaku), a kind-hearted nurse who offers support to Tommy in the same hospital his wife vegetates within.
When a genre film can be rooted in reality, it stands a good shot at immortality. When audiences can see aspects of their own lives (a la the aforementioned opening hour of The Exorcist), they respond more strongly to the material. In Citadel, it's the strong elements of humanity that contribute to scaring the fuck out of people.
Marie is an especially crucial character on a number of fronts, but for me, one of the most moving things to come from her is the observation that Tommy needs to express his love for the baby by communicating with it as if the child was, in fact, a person (which, obviously, it is). At the best of times, men often don't have natural communication proclivities when it comes to babies. Speaking for myself, I had to be reminded by virtually everyone I knew that instead of referring to my infant by her name, I kept referring to her as "the child". Ah well, chalk that up to my being infused with barbaric Cossack DNA.
Tommy is not, however, experiencing the best of times. (An understatement if there ever was one.) Marie's careful, gentle observations and prompting are exactly what spins a perfect narrative turn in the story. For the first time, Tommy holds his child and communicates to it with love and humanity, not fear. The frame below captures a sequence that is designed to both move you, but to also add a new layer to Tommy's character that assists him with moving forward - especially since the most horrible events occur soon after.
Let me again stress - Horrible Events.
|Note to Hollywood and casting agents the world over: The camera loves Wunmi Mosaku (above right) and she is an extraordinary actress. Someone please make this lady from CITADEL a star.|
The screen capture below allows for added discussion on the issue of faith in God. Pictured in the foreground is a distressed Tommy. Way in the background are hordes of bloodthirsty feral kids and in the centre is The Good Father (a sterling performance from the great James Cosmo). The Father is the unlikeliest man of the cloth; he'll go through the motions of reading over the graves of those who are being decimated by crime and rampant infection within the projects, he charitably rescues a young orphan from the citadel and he'll wear his clerical collar when it's necessary for those who believe. His belief system, however, has been shattered. He is hell-bent on destroying the evil residing in the projects - even if it means killing them in cold blood. In the scene below, he's agreed to help Tommy out, but warns him that faith in the rubbish that is Christ won't go as far as faith in oneself.
|As bloodthirsty feral children begin streaming from the CITADEL, Tommy is cautioned by the Good Father that faith in God is rubbish. He'll need faith in himself to overcome a greater evil than what lurks in the shadows, his fear.|
The two back-to-back images below represent the opening frame and closing frame of an exquisitely lit and perfectly composed push-in on Tommy's face. It's simple, yet so effective and most of all, enshrouded in the darkness and shadows of the place he fears most. Like the Lewton pictures (a huge influence upon the best of the best, like Friedkin, Scorsese, etc. and the art of cinema itself) this an example of how Citadel takes us from one manner of fear to another. Throughout most of the picture, Tommy deals with his fears by surrounding himself in the light of day and/or the interior light of his home. The film's final third has Tommy plunged almost completely into darkness - the final bastion to conquer both the pervasive and very real object of terror. And given the final frame below, you can bet your entire stake that the very next frame will be the sweetest of sweet spots chosen by the film's editors to jolt you with the reality of what Tommy witnesses. (And a shot that probably demands you wear a pair of Depends when you see the film.)
|Any guesses what the next shot will be? CITADEL|
Citadel is indeed an important film on many artistic levels outlined above (and in other writings by myself and others). However, its primary importance is that within the context of genre (which has the power to reach huge audiences and young ones), the movie seriously (and, all importantly - entertainingly) addresses, head-on, the horror facing many of us.
While many begin their lives in a state of disenfranchisement and seldom escape, others have never known the meaning of the word until the rug was pulled from under them due to the increase in downsizing, the insidious magnetic pull of consumerism, the equally spurious lustre of debt and last, but not least, the lack of political will that's been mostly bought off by corporate interests that use government as its puppet to increase profits at the expense of everyone but themselves. Even those few politicians who might have genuinely made a difference were assassinated and in this day and age, unless the powers-that-be want to send a statement using public assassination, kill our best and brightest leaders with secret and nefariously-inflicted "infections".
Then, there is the culling.
The richest, most powerful men in the word clearly want to siphon as much wealth and power as they can, but even now, they are engaged in advocating and downright supporting massive forced sterilization (sometimes right up front and others more subtle, like the new x-ray technology at any number of security checkpoints) in addition to outright murder (spurious "wars" against terror, getting government to approve deadly products like aspartame, fluoride and ANYTHING ingested from sources like Monsanto, Dole and other corporate food entities).
Ted Turner (and he's sadly not alone - yes, YOU Bill Gates and all the rest of this foul ilk) has stated (and defended and reiterated) the following sentiment:
"Right now there are just way too many people on the planet. A total world population of 250-300 million people, a 95% decline from present levels would be ideal."
Citadel is set in a dystopian world, but there's little that's futuristic about it. The movie feels like it's set "ten seconds into the future" (to coin a tagline from City of Dark, a Bruno Lazaro Pacheco film I produced). One gets the sense that the housing projects Foy's film is set in are but the tip of the iceberg in the larger world of the film. The streets are deserted - not because it's a low-budget movie and not because the majority of the populace in the film are too scared to be on the streets - but because there is an "infection".
"Infections" (Ebola, AIDS, SARS, the list goes on and on) are here and now. They kill people. We can fool ourselves into believing they're "natural", but to cull such wide swaths of humanity is a multi-pronged approach.
The results of the 'infection" in Citadel are devastating. It kills adults and children alike, but the latter are often susceptible to living - in a living hell - blind (except to fear), bloodthirsty, savage and feral. If there's a cure, nobody is chomping at the bit to find it.
Though (as pictured below), trinity, however briefly, seems restored to Tommy, accompanied as he is by the young rescued feral kid and baby. What awaits them is a light at the end of the tunnel, but getting there might well prove deadly. And even if they do reach the light, what will they be facing?
It's a bit like life as it is now, and seemingly forever in this age of suffering and collapse. Agoraphobia is a very real and debilitating sickness, but I can't help think that it works within the film as a larger metaphor to expose the potential of a mass agoraphobic reaction to the beleaguering attacks upon those who are described by George Bailey (James Stewart) in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life as all those in this world "who do most of the working and paying and living and dying" in it.
Yes, Citadel is ultimately a film infused with humanity and it seems appropriate that the movie reminds me of George Bailey's full speech to the corporate pig Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) during a point when Bailey's levels of courage are at their highest and before, like Tommy, when they crash to their lowest point and an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) shows up, much like the Good Father in Citadel, to infuse him with the power he needs to fight his greatest and most debilitating fears:
Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you'll ever be!
Ciaran Foy has made a great film. Those who see Citadel will also be much richer for doing so.
|Trinity, now restored. Will it survive the light at the end of the tunnel that is CITADEL|
Please read my interview with writer-director Ciaran Foy in Virginie Selavy's ultra-cool UK Film Magazine "Electric Sheep - a deviant view of cinema". And whatever you do, buy this movie, study it and cherish it. You'll be getting a ground-floor glimpse into the work of a director who we'll be hearing from for years to come. In the USA, Citadel is distributed by New Video Group, in Canada by Mongrel Media and in the UK by the Revolver Entertainment Group.