Citadel took me by surprise. What I thought was at first a psychological film about fear overtaking someone turned into a genuine horror film. I'm not given to enjoying horror films, but Citadel was different. It had the trappings of a modern-day horror film (the off-kilter lighting, the monsters), but by the time you get this confirmation, you have become so caught up in our main character's plight that Citadel becomes not just a tale of demons, but of personal redemption.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) is a regular working-class fellow who is about to become a new father. He and his wife live in a remarkably dilapidated housing complex, and as they are getting ready to go to hospital, his wife is attacked by a group of hooded thugs. The elevator won't let him out and he's forced to go back down and race up the stairs, where she is in a state of shock, clinging to life. While she is able to give birth to their daughter, Elsa, his wife remains in a coma. Eventually, he is forced to pull the plug.
Tommy is an emotional wreck. The attack and its aftermath so shocked and traumatized him that he now lives in a state of perpetual, almost crippling fear. His biggest fear is that of open spaces, agoraphobia. He still functions, barely, doing his best to raise his infant daughter while in grips of near total-terror. Tommy does have help from Marie (Wumni Mosako), a sympathetic nurse he's met while his wife was at hospice. Still, even that isn't help enough: every time he sees hooded thugs he freaks, especially when they at times appear to be laying siege to his home.
The priest who officiated his wife's funeral (James Cosmo) is a hostile man, telling Tommy that now they'll be after both Tommy and Elsa. Tommy doesn't understand the priest's hostility towards him or the hoods, even more when he says they ought to burn their hideout (which happens to be Tommy's old apartment complex) with them inside. Marie and Tommy think the priest is either bitter or crazy, but then we get a horrifying moment: Marie's confidence in the goodness of people is literally killed off. The hoods go after a beyond-terrified Tommy and while he tries he cannot stop them from taking Elsa.
Going to the priest, he learns a horrifying truth: the hoods are literal demons. They take kids and turn them into monsters (hence the missing kids posters we've been seeing) and now they will do the same to Elsa. Only the priest, accompanied by Danny (Jake Wilson), a child they didn't turn who can prevent the demons from seeing them (since, unlike others, he doesn't fear them), can help Tommy rescue his daughter...but it means going back to that apartment block, nicknamed the Citadel.
It wasn't until we get this twist about the feral children that I found myself watching a horror film. Until then, I took Citadel to be an exploration of one man's crippling illness, one that made him paranoid and fearful, one who is trying to come to terms with both what he endured and with raising a child in the midst of the insanity.
I'll be frank: I'm not a big fan of horror films, but it's a credit to writer/director Ciaran Foy that while the conventions of present-day horror films were in Citadel, we weren't given the final twist until very late into the film. Citadel is effective because it is remarkably restrained: we are given the basics without having things either particularly graphic or spelled out. For example, the opening has just the hooded thugs coming in almost unnoticed. We see Tommy struggle with the elevators, and when the doors won't open we see Tommy trapped inside looking at his wife through the elevator window. First we see her, then we don't.
Tim Fleming's cinematography is appropriately spooky, dominated by yellows and greens and flickering lights. Of course, if one thinks of Citadel as more a psychological exploration of Tommy's emotional breakdown and crippling fear, it adds to the heightened sense of paranoia he is enduring.
I can't emphasize enough that I went into Citadel unaware that it was suppose to be a horror film. Perhaps those who are more used to the Hostel/Saw school of films might be displeased by the lack of graphic violence in Citadel, but it works here because it becomes more about Tommy's journey from terror to courage.
This is where Citadel excels: in Aneurin Barnard's brilliant performance. Barnard is an up-and-coming actor (to my mind, looking like James McAvoy's younger cousin), and in Citadel, he is a tightly wound individual, his eyes expressing a haunted and hunted sense of fear, terror, and ultimately courage. It is, to my mind, one of the best performances of this year and should make Citadel worth watching for just because of Barnard (whom I hope we hear more from).
Perhaps I'm reading too much into things, but I like to think Citadel does what any good science-fiction or horror film is able to do: serve as allegory. I like to think that Citadel in its horror guise serves as a commentary on the rampant destruction of youth with nothing to do and nowhere to go (to quote The Ramones) can cause. These hoods, who to many are not truly human, are destructive and want to turn even the youngest into monsters like themselves, are forcing people to hide within their homes. It's only when those who recognize fear confront them that the demons can be defeated. Compassion and understanding will not work, the film might argue. Only wiping the earth clean will there be peace once these kids stop being human.
Citadel also has a thrilling and eerie score by tomandandy (Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn) which sets the moods beautifully: haunting, even mournful, tender, and overwhelming with terror but not overwhelming the film itself.
Citadel is an intelligent horror film where the character and his journey from terror to strength is the real story as opposed to quick flashes of violence. In terms terrifying, thrilling, and tender, Citadel is a horror film that also works as allegory. Anchored by a brilliant performance, Citadel is a film that took me by surprise, kept me on edge, and has stayed with me after the film ended.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to face it down. Citadel draws from it, and out of that springs one of the best films I've seen this year.