Location, location, location — that old basic truism about the three rules for running a successful restaurant. Filmmaking can’t be boiled down to something so simple, but sometimes filmmakers seem to try their best.
Take Titanic, a movie I alternately praise and pick on. Without the eponymous ocean liner, there’s no film. Or Citadel, Ciaran Foy’s disturbing low-budget horror flick from last year. Ultimately a story about a young agoraphobic and his understandable fear of feral demon children, Citadel would have been less effective had it been filmed elsewhere.
Filmed in and around condemned public housing in Glasgow during a rough winter, the locale is a menace more ever-present than the demon children. It’s an oppressive place — subhuman. The idea that anyone would live in these buildings, even when they were new, is an insult to humanity. The demon children that lurk in the area feel like the logical outgrowth of an area abandoned by civilization, or the result of some sort of toxic ether left behind by a failed attempt at orderly society. Housing projects are depressing at their best, little more than prisons with freedom of movement. And when they go bad, they become frightening places — dystopian, even post-apocalyptic.
Into this environment, Foy has chosen to drop his protagonist, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), a young father. After witnessing a group of the demon children attack his wife, Tommy is left to raise their child on his own, while dealing with a crippling case of agoraphobia. Tommy fears the world outside his awful little apartment. He knows the child gangs are out there, still running wild, still looking for victims. His phobia makes him think they are looking for him. He may be right.
The only sympathetic face he encounters is the nurse who cared for his wife before she died, Marie (Wunmi Mosaku). She’s also Foy’s choice to shove a clumsily executed love interest into the story. It’s brief, but perplexing. What young, attractive nurse wouldn’t find Tommy desirable? Perhaps it’s his abject poverty that turns her on. Maybe it’s his inability to be gainfully employed, or the fact he turns into a blubbery mess whenever he goes outside. No, it must be his eyes. Women just melt over panicked, shifty gazes issued forth from sunken, darkened sockets. What I’m saying, then, is that this little bit of plot is even more outlandish than the idea of feral demon children stalking a condemned housing project.
A more believable ally is found in James Cosmo’s wayward priest. He’s never given a name, and it’s not at all clear if he’s really a priest, but other than Tommy, he seems to be the only other person who is concerned about the streets being overrun. His solution is extreme: burn down the tower block where the children hide. His mission is convincing Tommy to help him. In this, he employs disdain and verbal abuse. After spending some time with Tommy, a viewer could be forgiven for feeling that’s all he deserved.
Tommy bleeds fear. Barnard plays Tommy’s crippled psyche to the full, not as a sympathetic character, but rather as one held close to contempt. This isn’t just for the consumption of the audience, however. The demon children see Tommy’s fear in a more stark fashion than those of us on the other side of the screen, as a weakness and a sort of bait. This couldn’t have been an easy role for Barnard, always looking like he just drank about fifty cups of coffee, but he nailed it.
As for the film, Foy has crafted a dark portrait of a man’s helplessness and fear. His choice to wrap it in one of Glasgow’s more unsavory regions adds to the overall gloom, and the city becomes as much a member of the cast as Barnard or Cosmo. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but it’s worth the effort.