Film Review: Citadel

Like <i>Kill List</i> (2011) and <i>Heartless </i>(2009), this taut thriller wrings maximum suspense from all-too ordinary, real-life terrors while gradually edging into full-blown horror territory.

It's moving day for Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his hugely pregnant wife, Joanne (Amy Shiels), and they're thrilled to be getting out of their apartment in a rundown Irish housing project and moving to a much nicer development in nearby Edenstown. Even if they'll still be able to see their old building, they'll be seeing it from their own little house, one that opens onto a pretty green. And then, just as Tommy is taking the last suitcase downstairs in the rattletrap elevator with the dicey door, the unthinkable happens. Three youngsters in hoodies set upon Joanne like a pack of rabid dogs and Tommy is trapped, just a few feet away and helpless; by the time he gets out, the children are gone and Joanne is covered in blood, a hypodermic needle stuck deep in her belly.

Doctors are able to save her unborn child, but Joanne slips into coma brought on by some unidentified infection. Tommy goes home with a baby girl he names Elsa and commits himself to being the best father he can, but the attack has awakened agoraphobic tendencies that not only don't improve with therapy but actually get worse…especially after he begins glimpsing the feral youngsters who brutalized Joanne lurking around his new home.

Isolated and overwhelmed, Tommy has only two real confidants: gentle, down-to-earth nurse Marie (Wunmi Mosaku), who encourages Tommy not to demonize the children, deeply damaged products of neglect and abuse themselves, and a volatile priest (James Cosmo), who says just the opposite—that they're monsters in human form and Tommy is right to fear them. They kidnap children and turn them into vicious beasts just like them; Danny (Jake Wilson), the solemn young blind boy who goes everywhere with him, is the only child he's ever been able to recover and successfully rehabilitate. Tommy would like to believe Marie, but from where Tommy stands, the priest's grim explanation is more convincing.

Citadel, Irish filmmaker Ciaran Foy's first feature, inspired by his own experience of an unprovoked attack when he was a teenager by a group of hammer-wielding thugs, is an assured piece of genre filmmaking that plays on the primal fear of being unable to shield one's family from violence. And while he's a capable director of suspense sequences, he also shows a sure hand with actors, eliciting strong performances from all his leads, including little Jake Wilson. Without them, Marie, Tommy, Danny and the rest would be genre stereotypes; with them, they're people whose various ordeals have real emotional weight.