A fear of inner-city living, a fear of failing loved ones, a fear of the dark, a fear of being terrorized by very real monsters -- most any thriller could take just one of these threats and run with it, and yet “Citadel” strikes a deft balance between each, conjuring a mood just tense enough for just long enough to keep potentially nagging disbelief at bay.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) is a father-to-be who’s almost done moving himself and Joanne (Amy Shiels) out of a particularly dodgy neighborhood when an especially dodgy elevator keeps him from stepping in as hoodlums violently assault his pregnant wife. She falls into a coma, but the baby is saved, and months later, Tommy remains a wreck, agonizing in his fight against both acute agoraphobia and bureaucratic isolation as a familiar menace returns to put him and his child in very real danger.
Making his feature debut, writer/director Ciaran Foy grounds the initial tragedy and resulting tension in reasonably realistic social concerns. To be a young single parent on welfare would be a considerable hurdle, and to be further paralyzed by seemingly savage strangers only adds to the pressures. Foy keeps his camera in tight on Barnard, with the wide-eyed lead turning his character’s crippling phobia into a palpable handicap, and once Tommy does venture outside, three looming tower blocks never fail to remind him of what came before and lurks there still.
The handful of other actors who share the screen with him -- a concerned nurse (Wunmi Mosaku), a callous priest (James Cosmo), and a blind boy (Jake Wilson) -- each redeem their role’s rudimentary characteristics, and together, they complement our protagonist’s struggle to no longer see himself as a victim. Foy’s screenplay briskly establishes the stakes and effectively escalates the situation from psychological trauma to life-or-death hide-and-seek, and his direction keeps the dread and despair of these last few standing in no small supply.
Although the parallels between internal acts of recovery and literal feats of rescue are a bit conventional and pronounced, and the ultimate rationale behind who or what Tommy is up against may seem silly even when taken as a metaphor for the spread of urban decay, the danger of said threat is sold with a straight face and a steady hand in the moment. “Citadel” has a lot on its mind, maybe too much at times, but its constant sense of visceral anxiety is hard to shake.