Genre(s): Drama, Horror, Thriller
Director(s): Ciaran Foy
Release Year: 2012
Citadel caught my attention because of one simple reason: Ciaran Foy, the writer and director, took his previous experience with agoraphobia and used it to craft a chilling story about overcoming your fears. While not a unique concept to have a writer pull from personal experiences, the entire movie hinges on a character that has the inability to act when faced with a recurring situation. Because of this, the film both benefits and suffers. Walking the line between thriller and horror film for the first half of the movie, Citadel eventually spirals into full-blown horror, with all the problems that that usually entails. From deranged, atheist priests that see the horrors no one else does, to the infected, zombie-like creatures that haunt Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and prevent him from being able to move on with his life, the movie is filled with horror elements and dramatic beats which will both please and annoy fans of both genres.
It’s probably most helpful to first define agoraphobia, seeing as how the movie relies heavily on it. It’s a fear of being in places that have no apparent exit, usually resulting in a heightened state of anxiety or tremendous fear. The reason this is so crucial to Citadel is because the main character, Tommy, is inflicted with this fear after witnessing his pregnant wife be murdered by a group of thugs. She doesn’t survive, but the child she was carrying does, and so Tommy is left to take care of his daughter Elsa, alone. Unfortunately for him, he has to take care of her while being constantly anxious and frightened. It also doesn’t help that the thugs that killed his wife, are infected children who sense those that are scared and kill them. Why doesn’t he just leave this town that is pretty barren to begin with? It doesn’t seem like anyone enjoys it there except for Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), the nurse that helps him after his wife’s death, so it can’t be because he likes the place. Instead, the reason (which surprisingly is even given, something I rarely expect to be addressed in a horror film) is that social services needs him to stay in the town for a little while and prove he can raise Elsa. I don’t know why he can’t just argue that it’s clearly not safe, but it is a movie, you’re required to suspend your disbelief somewhere, even if there are feral children killing random people and no one dealing with it.
Citadel is fairly slow-moving and redundant for a little while, as it builds the atmosphere and continues making the infected children appear mysterious, while we plead for some answers. In comes our atheist priest (James Cosmo), who warns Tommy that the children will not stop harassing him and that he should skip town. Everyone thinks the priest is a nutcase, though, so no one pays him any mind. It turns out he’s the only one who makes any sense, and the final act of the film turns into the priest, a blind child, and Tommy searching the building where the children are coming from. That final act is where the most generic things happen in this movie, and when plot twists begin happening, you can’t help but laugh at their ridiculousness. It’s clearly a film where they knew they wanted to develop Tommy as a staple of agoraphobia, and knew where the movie needed to end, but had to throw in a bunch of supernatural and ridiculous motivations in order to get to the ending and be exciting.
Nonetheless, the acting is all really well done, especially from Barnard, who does an incredible job playing a frightened parent. James Cosmo has no choice but to feel ridiculous as a priest, and it’s the dialogue assigned to him that hurts him, not his acting. It really is Tommy that is the focus here, and his character acts in the expected way in such a situation, though I’m still not entirely sure why he wouldn’t just leave town. Because of how he acts, the camera feels like a part of the tension; as it shakes, the frantic actions of Tommy feel more personable, and rarely does Tommy’s character ever feel as absurd as the priest. He’s just staying on the sidelines, trying not to be bothered, and only stepping up to the plate when necessary. The children are also excellent physical manifestations of fear, so when Tommy needs to overcome his agoraphobia, they work as stepping stones to that ultimate goal.
Because of this, Citadel is a tense first-time feature-length film from Ciaran Foy, but definitely feels like just that: a first-time effort. The script could use a lot more polish, specifically the character of the priest. That being said, Tommy is written beautifully, and the infected children come off creepy both on the page and on the screen. As a short film, this would have played more effectively in delivering a haunting atmosphere, and not needing the priest character to act as a catalyst to finish Tommy’s character arc. As it stands, the film plays as an alright thriller, but an excellent study into the psyche of someone inflicted with agoraphobia.