-Written by Greg B
In the mid 1970s Paul Schrader was going through a rough patch. His first marriage had collapsed, he was pretty much destitute, living in his car and struggling to find work. All of the loneliness and hatred that grew inside him was bound to force its way out in some form or another. And rather than simply caving in to the pressure or giving up altogether, Schrader wrote in ten days, what is, in my opinion at least, the greatest film script of the last forty years. The truth is he didn’t have a choice, the script simply leapt out of him, ‘like a tiger’.
The back story to Citadel, suggests that the film serves a similar cathartic function for its director, Ciaran Foy. While walking home one night, the director was savagely assaulted with a hammer by a group of hooded thugs while they held a dirty syringe to his neck. This left Foy with agoraphobia, a disorder in which a person suffers bouts of intense panic attacks and severe anxiety. And perhaps in order to recover from experiencing such unimaginable brutality, the director decided to use his experiences as the basis for the narrative of his debut feature. Citadel follows the living hell that its lead character Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) is thrown into after his pregnant wife (Amy Shiels) is attacked by a group of teens, who beat her, plunge a dirty needle into her swollen belly and then leave her for dead. Her baby survives but she passes from an ‘unidentified infection’. Helpless and alone, Tommy is forced to move into a council house within an estate that can only be described as something that resembles the third ring of hell with added concrete. As he has to battle to keep himself together enough to even leave his house things go from bad to worse. Tommy’s life keeps spiraling further into disarray as the demonic kids who live on his estate continue to torment him by breaking into his house and ransacking his belongings. Only a kindly nurse named Marie (Wumni Mosaku) attempts to provide him with some sort of hope. But after even more tragedy strikes, Tommy decides that he will take up the offer given to him by an apparently unhinged priest who wishes to raise the infernal tower block that was the site where Tommy’s wife was murdered and the feral inhabitants residing within its walls to the ground.
(So, ugh, you wanna catch a movie after this?)
Citadel is a relentlessly bleak picture. Any potential redemption presented within the film takes the form of bloody retribution and whenever Tommy spots a glimmer of hope in recovering from his crippling agoraphobia he is forced back into a shell of anxiety by evermore cruel attacks perpetrated by his unseen aggressors. Tim Fleming’s cinematography is suitably washed out, dark and grimy. It’s as if the sun never shines within the damp alleys and gloomy estates of the film’s unnamed urban locale. However if truth be told, I found the sound design to be most truly terrifying aspect of the film. Whenever one of the hooded, working class versions of The Brood’s monster children makes an appearance they deliver a blood curdling shriek that would make the pod people from Philip Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers wince. But it is Aneurin Barnard’s disconcerting performance as the quivering, perpetually distraught Tommy that provides Citadel with a genuinely unnerving edge. Just watching his jittery mannerisms and petrified expressions is enough to induce a stress related ulcer in any viewer. James Cosmo also provides an intimidating if not down right crazed performance as the wheezy, gruff priest and James Wilson is great as his blind but-sharp-as-a-tack and kinda mystical son Jake.
(We’ve been living in a council house for three days…)
It is as if Foy wanted to fictionalise his harrowing experiences to such a degree that he focused most of his attention solely on how to represent his ordeal filmicly and this is reflected in the narratives somewhat messy structure. The abundance of twists and turns that are revealed toward the film’s conclusion seem convoluted and tacked on, as though they were an afterthought, a way to wrap everything up nicely. It’s almost as if Citadel would have been more suited to a short film format, but as the debilitating effects that result from violent crime don’t end after the fact, but linger on like a grinning spectre, perhaps Foy wished to emphasize this. Nonetheless, the film runs out of steam and its relentless horrors render it at times downright depressing. Foy is absolutely justified in making the film this way, but unfortunately it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience. This, combined with the aforementioned ill-advised pile of twists, leads to the film becoming convoluted and somewhat messy.
Clearly Citadel is about as honest and personal as horror can get. Theres no pretension or illusion here, this film taps into the most primal fears that we hold deep within us. The need to protect your family and loved ones. The fear for their safety against attackers. I really wanted to like this film more, it’s just a shame that Foy couldn’t have thought through the rest of the narrative as much as he did the opening act. Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes a lot of the time within an urban setting it is the deprived and angry poor who are confused and filled with rage and so perpetuate senseless violence. But nothing is ever black and white and even seemingly socialized ‘good’ people are capable of the most heinous acts. This is the gaping hole in the middle of Citadel that is never filled. If kids who grow up in inner city tower blocks are portrayed as nothing more than screeching ‘inbred, dog people’ and nothing more, I think there’s some problems that need to be addressed. With that being said, Citadel certainly isn’t a hateful film, it’s just one that is profoundly unsettling and not always for the right reasons.