Tommy Cowley is forced to watch, helplessly, as his pregnant wife Joanne is viciously attacked by a gang of hoodie-wearing youths. The baby survives the attack, and is born prematurely, but Joanne slips into a coma from which she does not recover, and her life support is terminated. Tommy is forced to raise his newborn daughter as a single father, and other side-effects of his experience include heightened anxiety, acute paranoia and crippling agoraphobia. Tommy gradually comes to believe that the kids who killed his wife aren’t yet done with the Cowley family, and plan to abduct the child. He’s right–and the only people who can help him are a bitter old priest and his ward, a young blind boy named Danny, who know more about the hooded children than they let on…

The first hour of Citadel is absolutely riveting. Ciaran Foy (making his feature debut) does a fantastic job of building Tommy’s world and bringing it to life, both through writing and direction. Wherever the film is meant to be set (since most of the accents are Irish, I assumed it to be the seedier regions of Dublin, but it’s never entirely certain), it’s absolutely clear that it’s one of the geographical assholes of the world, as horrible a place as you can live without being in one of those countries run by a despotic “president for life” who campaigns with slogans such as “He killed my ma and pa, but I will still vote for him” and wins elections by having his opponents assassinated. (And it’s a potent reminder that there are areas of rich, industrialized and so-called “civilized” nations where the standard of living is squalid enough to compete with any third-world metropolis.)

And the hoodies themselves are a brilliant creation; Foy takes a familiar icon of urban culture with occasional sinister subtext and transforms them into frightening, faceless monsters. He didn’t do as good a job as the makers of Ils did, but that’s my only criticism.

The performances of the primary roles are extremely strong. Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard, a relative newcomer, is brilliant as Tommy, interpreting the character’s fears and anxieties not only through line-readings but through physicality. You can readily believe that Tommy is scared of the entire goddamn world. James Cosmo (veteran of many cult fixtures such as A Game Of Thrones, Sons Of Anarchy, and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe) plays the priest and steals every scene he’s in with a mixture of battered cynicism and bitter profanity. He’s the closest thing a very bleak film has in the way of comic relief, but it’s comedy of a very disturbing variety, and Cosmo always plays with the perfect balance of humor and horror.

The supporting performances are also excellent, particularly young Jake Wilson as Danny, who’s a touch better than most child actors and is guaranteed to trigger the engulf-and-protect instinct of any audience member who has at least half a heart, and Wunmi Mosaku as Marie, a social worker with deep sympathies (and a little bit more) for Tommy.

The weak spot of the production is the writing–both the storytelling and characterization. Tommy is defined very well, but most of the other characters skate by on the performances. The priest has a tendency to talk like a plot device, and it’s a credit to Mosaku that when Marie stupidly marches forward to her obvious and inevitable death she’s able to keep it from looking like the standard obligatory dumb-person-does-dumb-thing-and-then-dies setpiece that mars so many lazily-plotted genre offerings. But the first two acts of the film work and highly effective because they’re so character-driven as opposed to plot-driven.

But as the story advances it’s necessary to advance the plot, and in the final third of the film Citadel loses a lot of the momentum it had in its early stages by shifting down from a character study to a typical horror movie. The narrative path and plot twists become…well, maybe not predictable, exactly, but definitely obvious; none of the reveals are exactly surprises. The exploration of the Citadel is derivative of any number of game-of-cat-and-mouse-in-a-bubble sequences, and everything culminates in a flurry of not-particularly-convincing fire.

Worst of all–at least to me–is the resolution, which seems too neat and pat to be entirely credible. The plot points arrange themselves a little bit too nicely to bring Tommy to the point where Foy seems to believe he needs to be, as if (and I know I’m quoting my review of the original version of The Eye here) everything was designed by an outside force to teach Tommy a life lesson.

To me, the weak final act of Citadel didn’t ruin the overall experience for me, but then again I am very much a journey-not-the-destination kind of guy; your mileage may vary. If nothing else, it’s an intriguing first shot that’s very much worth a look, and I think Foy has some potential to come up with a couple of damn fine films…once he tightens up his storytelling skills.

My rating: 6 of 10.

84 minutes. Directed by Ciarán Foy. Starring Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku.

CITADEL poster.

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