The story focuses on often ignored aspects of the American slave trade. Namely the recapture of escaped slaves and how African Americans were used against each other in the process.
The opening scene sets this up very pointedly when a young black boy knocks on the door of a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and asks for shelter and safe passage north. He is taken to where other runaway slaves are hidden and given something to eat and a place to sleep. A few hours later, he sneaks out to let a slave bounty hunter know where the runaways are hiding.
The boy, Will, seems oddly unconflicted about his actions, probably because his choices stem from a desire to help his uncle, who is in a debt of service to the bounty hunter. The uncle appears to be the only family Will has, and so his motivations become sympathetic if not altogether justifiable. This uncle, however, soon proves to be completely unworthy of Will's loyalty and puts great demands on him as they go about their business of finding runaway slaves.
The bounty hunter assigns the two a particularly difficult mission. They are to travel into northern territory to find and lure back a runaway slave named Nate, so the bounty hunter can kill him to collect the reward for his dead body. Heading into free territory, Will and his uncle eventually find Nate. Then through a series of events, Will ends up traveling alone with Nate back south.
The two begin to bond on their journey, and Will finds in Nate an honorable father figure at long last. He also discovers a conscience he didn't know he had as he becomes wrought with guilt for the deception he has helped perpetrate on Nate.
And, this is where The Retrieval finds its real storytelling power as the veil of institutionalized slavery begins to lift from Will's eyes, and he makes a connection to another human being that isn't controlled by outside forces. He is torn between his fear of the bounty hunter and his affection for Nate, and the most intense moments come when Will tries to reconcile one with the other and slowly realizes he can't and must make a choice.
This is a film that moves along with a quiet strength with characters that exist in a world where only hard choices exist when they exist at all. And, moments of honest care and affection shine all the more brilliantly as a result. A truly remarkable film.