Written by: Janice Hallett, Carl Tibbetts
Directed by: Carl Hibbetts
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Bell and Thandie Newton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
No neighbors. No help. No escape.
Retreat is an easy enough film to write off at first glance; in fact, I did so myself when I took one look at the DVD cover, full of floating heads, a foreboding island, and a tagline intoning “no escape.” Certainly this means I was headed for the ever popular “affable vacationing couple gets terrorized by a psycho,” though this one admittedly carries a cast that had me wondering why it went direct-to-video. At any rate, yes, Retreat is that sort of film, yet another in a long line of Straw Dogs riffs, albeit one with just enough wrinkles to keep it moving along easily enough.
Martin Kennedy (Cillian Murphy) and his wife Kate (Thandie Newton) are retreating to the remote Blackholme Island in Scotland, where they’ll be staying in Fairweather Cottage. Their only connection to the mainland is the elderly ferryman, Doug (Jimmy Yuill), with whom they keep in contact via CB radio. They’re the only actual occupants on the island, at least until Jack Coleman (Jamie Bell) washes up bloodied and bruised on the shore. Martin and Kate are quick to take the stranger in, an act that is always a catalyst for general unpleasantry for all involved.
However, in this case, Jack awakes and seems to be perfectly normal, at least for a few minutes. Despite the fact that he was armed with a gun (which Martin has to remove from his unconscious body in one of the film’s early suspense scenes), he seems genuinely thankful to have been rescued. Of course, these guys always sort of put on a front at first, and he’s no different, becoming immediately suspicious when he begins to confirm that the island is otherwise uninhabited. Once he does this, he finally reveals the secret he’s been keeping from the couple: that there is currently a fatal, airborne virus ravaging the rest of the country and that all three need to board up the house to avoid the contagion.
That’s the first wrinkle in the film’s story, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it; it’s no big spoiler, and is actually the film’s hook right there in the DVD synopsis, which I opted not to read. The real question at the center of Retreat is if Jack’s telling the truth or not--is there really a virus or is he just a raving, paranoid lunatic? You’ll be tempted to lean towards the latter pretty quickly when he starts acting strangely especially towards Kate and claiming that they’re all going to be a happy family. Bell is quite good, acting mostly against type since he’s typically the good-natured characters; here, he’s desperate with just the right amount of menace, and it’s a tough line to walk since the script packs in various twists and turns that keep your perceptions constantly shifting.
Eventually, Retreat does degenerate into a typical home (or vacation home) invasion thriller, with the requisite distrust and tension mounting among the couple. There are hints early on that their marriage is strained--Kate’s a journalist who begins writing a story about a woman who lost her child, with the scene being cut in such a way that we know it’s autobiographical. Retreat resists becoming too lugubrious in this respects, even when it does look like it’s going to go Straw Dogs when Murphy kind of sulkily and ineffectually hangs out while his wife is being hit on. It’s similarly nice to see Murphy playing a good guy again sine he’s been relegated to creeper roles so much lately--I guess there’s something apocalyptic viruses that forces him to be the hero. Likewise, Newton is fine as Kate, who is basically made to look serious and somber for most of the film.
Just about everything about Retreat could be summed up like that--“it’s fine.” Carl Tibbetts makes his directorial debut and does a good job of keeping things clean--his scenes are well blocked, and I particularly liked that he resists the urge to get too frenetic, even when the action ramps up a bit. Retreat is lean all the way around, never really wanting to settle or dwell on any aspect for too long, instead choosing to bomb its way through all the expected beats and clichés. It’s moderately intense and dreary (highlighted by the rugged, bleak landscapes) with an affecting emotional undercurrent, as the narrative loads up a few gut punches that get unleashed towards the end. Retreat is more or less as good as any other average thriller that hits theaters on a yearly basis, so I wouldn’t take the direct-to-video status as an immediate indicator of quality. Sony Home Video will be bringing it to DVD on February 21st, where you’ll find a crisp, smooth anamorphic transfer and an enveloping 5.1 track that uses the entire soundscape (especially once it begins to storm, as is invariably the case in these films). The only special features are a photo gallery and a fluffy making-of documentary to check out. Retreat at least surprises insomuch as it adds some subtle variations on this worn-out genre, but don’t be surprised if it eventually retreats to the recesses of your mind, never to be thought of again after you’ve seen it. Rent it!
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