The problem with torture porn is that it deals in despair rather than fear. You can’t subsist on despair. It has nothing to add to the discussion beyond a smug hipness and the need to profit from it. Once you get past “bad things happen to good people and there’s nothing you can do about it!” it offers only geek show shock tactics. In the wake of 9/11, it felt right at home with our national mood, but its spell didn’t last long: touching the surface of the 21st century world, not the meat of it.
Citadel, a no-budget thriller from Ireland, finds the meat. It’s not torture porn in any sense of the world, but it eloquently expresses what those earlier films could only crudely fumble with. It knows our anxieties in this not-so-brave new era: our sense of helplessness, our terror of random violence, our certainty that we’re on our own no matter how many times we call the police, and our increasing retreat into the fortress of our homes as a futile, panicked defense mechanism. Through a dash of the supernatural into that equation, and you have a stunningly pertinent exploration of what scares the crap out of us these days.
Without that understanding, it wouldn’t be more than a run-of-the-mill horror flick, albeit with a fine sense of mood. Its hero, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) suffers from acute agoraphobia after helplessly watching his pregnant wife get killed by a gang of hoodie rats. The baby lives, but the father merely survives, and nine months later, he’s still walled up in his crumbling apartment: afraid to even step out the door. The hoodie rats aren’t done with him, however, and as the local belligerent priest (James Cosmo) explains, they’re actually a lot scarier than he can possibly imagine.
In the nuts-and-bolts sense, the story only barely works. Plot exposition labors to connect the dots and even at 86 minutes, undue padding creeps in far too often. Citadel works less as a story than as an extended mood: a sense of loneliness and isolation made manifest in a crumbling urban wasteland. Tommy and his baby may be the only real human being in the entire area. The few others he encounters either blissfully ignore the dangers around them or cower behind steel cages and locked doors. The streets belong to the monsters, and they feed on your fear. You can either tackle them head on or find a drain pipe to whimper in until they come for you.
Barnard internalizes the film’s mentality exceptionally well: his darting, watery eyes peering out from sickly pale skin as his panic bleeds out from the screen in visible waves. Writer/director Ciaran Foy depends on him for the film’s very life, and he comes through with flying colors. With him, Citadel becomes a compelling inner city nightmare, with the supernatural elements barely masking a very real scenario. Foy adds some nifty details to his monsters but they’re really just icing on the cake. The movie functions best on the most visceral level, where instinct takes over and we just want to scream “Run!”
That’s a rare feat, especially with no money to work with and a distribution deal that frankly stinks. Citadel looks destined to get buried beneath audience indifference: less a case of disliking it than having no idea it even exists. That’s okay. It has a lot going for it and movies like this have a way of finding the audience for which they’re intended. It speaks to the darkness in our souls and the way we see it reflected around us, then fiercely urges us to fight back. You can forgive a few bumps in the storytelling department for a movie that understands its purpose so well. Citadel is all the more impressive for its quiet self-assurance: a solid genre outing that waits patiently to be discovered instead of demanding our attention.