Hard to imagine an American filmmaker swatting the welfare state with as much venom as Irish director Ciaran Foy does with "Citadel," a haunting but imperfect shocker now playing in select theaters.
Named for a crumbling tenement building, "Citadel" starts with a standard vigilante template but tweaks it just enough to make the third act a haunting surprise.
Yet the film's first hour is the most memorable, the tale of a man paying the highest price for societal decay.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) watches his very pregnant wife get attacked by a trio of young thugs within the hallway of the apartment complex they're preparing to flee. The baby survives, but Tommy's wife is left in a comatose state. You could say the same for Tommy.
He's a wreck, barely able to leave the house and fumbling to care for young Elsa. But the monsters who assaulted his wife aren't finished with him yet.
Foy's film shares some DNA with the great U.K. thriller "Eden Lake," another tale depicting today's youth as capable of unimaginable horrors. In "Citadel," that quasi-abandoned building represents the government's attempt at propping up the very worst society has to offer. And it's only making matters worse.
The one character (Wunmi Mosaku) willing to embrace a touchy feely approach to the youth gone astray is set straight by the sharp-elbowed narrative.
That theme gets hammered home in "Citadel," particularly via the nightmarish images Foy conjures as he abandons the vigilante structure for something more ... horrific.
The third act promises tension and terror, but Foy isn't able to summon either emotion. Blame the introduction of a vengeful priest (James Cosmo), a character who alternately cusses out anyone nearby and spits out the film's explanatory passages.
"Citadel" deserves praise for its atypical message and for not blandly regurgitating the "Death Wish" scenario. Foy can't process the fury he feels into a film worthy of his arguments.