Saturday, January 12, 2013

Citadel: The Feral City

"Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power."   -Richard J. Norton, Feral Cities

I don't think urban decay gets enough attention in horror movies. I mean, yeah, there's abandoned hospitals and prisons and whatnot all over the place. I mean urban decay, the slow blight of neglect and willful ignorance, the creeping rot of failed social experiments. I mean, let's face it. When you live in a city of any size, there will always be sections labeled HERE BE MONSTERS on your mental map. Neighborhoods in which you don't want  to be, whole sides of town, particular streets, particular intersections of particular streets. The specific geography might shift by race and class, but the basic idea remains. Hell, The Warriors is a hallucinatory feature-length take on this idea - it's an entire movie about a group of delinquents trying to get from the Bronx to Coney Island. It's a pulp crime thriller about a commute. So all of the weird shit left to happen when the government abandons chunks of a city - from slums to abandoned suburbs to cities within cities - that's fertile ground for horror. It's mystery, it's atrocity, and it's only a few miles away.

Citadel makes an admirable stab at exploring the idea of the feral city. It's a little obvious and doesn't do as much with it as it could, but not for lack of trying.

Tommy and Joanna are moving out of their shitty apartment in a shitty tower block in a shitty part of Ireland. Tile floors, cinderblock, and an elevator that only works when it damn well feels like it. The housing council has gotten them a new place and they're excited - Joanna's expecting, so they'll be raising their child in a better place. They're almost entirely moved out - Tommy's just taking one last suitcase down to the taxi - when a gang of hooded figures surround Joanna and start beating her. Trapped in the defective elevator, Tommy can only watch. And so ends Joanna, punctured by dirty hypodermic needles and dead of a mysterious infection. 

Their daughter, however, is born healthy. So Tommy is left to move into their new place without Joanna, and with a new baby girl and crippling agoraphobia. Would you blame him? The last time he walked out the door his wife died right in front of him. He can't work anymore, he has to go to group therapy, and Social Services are coming to take his daughter away because he isn't a fit parent. And on top of that, the mysterious hooded figures haven't gone away. They're coming for his daughter.

At its best, Citadel isn't so much about the mysterious figures who killed Joanna as it is about Tommy's increasingly desperate circumstances. He has no support system, no money, and he's the only thing keeping his baby daughter alive. Poverty's as terrifying as anything fictional, and his life stands on a knife's edge. One thing goes wrong and there's nobody there to catch them. Of course he's agoraphobic - one false move, one step outside and everything could fall apart. There's an especially effective sequence revolving around Tommy trying to complete a series of bureaucratic forms before the only bus of the day leaves. It sounds mundane and ridiculous, but it's not, not to Tommy - those forms are what he needs to keep a roof over their heads, the bus is the only way home, and every second he's not at home both he and his daughter are in danger from the vagaries of everyday life. What monster can compare to that?

Ultimately, we find out what kind of monster does compare: Feral children, their weapons - bricks, pipes, used hypodermic needles - the rubble and detritus of the slums. It's the worst, most decaying, condemned tower blocks that are shitting them out like poison oozing from an old sore. Condemned high-rises, monuments to Brutalist indifference churning out new plagues borne on the backs of the old.  As metaphors go, it's a little heavy-handed, and the explanation for their existence is too, but the monsters aren't what killed Joanna, they're just a symptom of the larger problem of poverty and urban decay that continues to threaten Tommy after her death. If this seems a little slight and obvious, that's because it is. 

There's a lot you could do with the idea of a feral city, a no-man's-land where everything gets weirder and darker the deeper in you go, the further away from sunlight you venture, and Citadel underserves it. What's there is good, though - there are some tense, creepy moments, everything goes nicely underexplained, and it mostly eschews cheap drama for a clear and careful focus on Tommy's story. When his story is over, so is the movie, and without a lot of the cliches you'd expect. Still, the condemned tower blocks cast a long shadow in this movie, and it'd be good if more of it were about what's casting the shadow instead of the protagonists' attempts to eke out a living in its shade. 

Not available on Netflix

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