There are nightmare scenarios, and then there are nightmare scenarios. For soon-to-be-father Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), his nightmare comes to life when, trapped in the portcullis of a stalled elevator, he witnesses his pregnant wife’s brutal beating at the hands of a small gang of hooded youth. Not only is she left brain dead on the day they were meant to leave their crumbling tenement apartment and the decaying neighborhood it inhabits, but Tommy is immediately handed a screaming newborn to take care of. Unsurprisingly, the whole affair leaves Tommy a traumatized mess, capable only of leaving his house for therapy sessions and the occasional visit to the hospice.
Just as Tommy is beginning to make progress, he is accosted by a crazy priest (James Cosmo) who warns that Tommy’s daughter is still under threat and suddenly what Tommy had comfortably been able to brush off as his own neurosis comes to life in increasingly threatening and unbelievable ways. Pushed beyond the brink, Tommy must team up with the priest and confront his fears in order to conquer the Citadel.
As a film, Citadel combines many previously seen horrors: urban isolation, fatherhood, agoraphobia, youth violence and blends them together with such fury that the result is almost as inescapable for the audience as it is for poor Tommy. This near-crippling sense of claustrophobia that results is further heightened by Barnard’s performance, referred to earlier in the film as “screaming victim.” He is a nervous wreck, his shoulders hunched so high that his ears disappear and his steps so halting he seems to have been animated out of clay. He is so tightly wound the entire film that his inevitable explosion at the end is just as cathartic for us as it is for him.
While much of the third act is marred by lame twists and complicated mythology, the fact that we saw what needed to be Tommy’s journey right from the beginning of the film is no less satisfying to see played out. This is 100% the result of Barnard’s performance, taking what could have been an unsympathetic victim and creating a character that we not only sympathize with, but actively cheer for. This is due largely to Barnard’s ability to project Tommy’s strength past his phobia-ridden exterior.
Foy and Barnard are so gifted at portraying the psychological aspects of the story that when things start to become more literal, the necessary suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly difficult. Luckily, breakout performances, nail-biting tension and a pitch-black streak of humor anchor the film and make Citadel a feature film directorial debut worth seeking out.