FEBRUARY 20, 2012
I was sent Retreat to review, and probably should have gotten to it sooner (it hits stores tomorrow), because it’s about a couple on the verge of breaking up and today is the 10 year anniversary of when I began seeing my now wife (awww). Most folks would assume I’d take the day off from HMAD-ing, or at least opt for something light, maybe even romantic (The Eclipse!), but no. I go with the umpteenth movie about a couple who repairs their broken bond after dealing with a psycho.
Anyway, it’s a pretty good “one-time” thriller. Our couple is holed up on an island, trying to sort shit out, when their generator goes out and their calls for help go unanswered. Then Jamie Bell shows up, bloodied and packing a gun, telling them that a virus has broken out on the mainland and that they need to seal up the house to keep it (or anyone else) from getting in. Is he crazy, or telling the truth? Is he dangerous or does he truly want to protect them? Like a lot of thrillers in this vein, not knowing the answers is what makes the movie work; once everything’s in place it becomes a little more routine.
But kudos to first time writer/director Carl Tibbetts for keeping me guessing for a while; I was never too sure one way or the other for more than a couple minutes before I started leaning in the other direction. He cleverly uses a minimalist approach to tell his story – there are only four people in the movie (one only seen in a couple of brief moments in the first reel), so when Bell tells his story, the lack of visual proof fits with the movie’s style, as it almost unfolds like a play. The house is huge but we seemingly don’t see a lot of it, with most of the scenes taking place in the main room, the kitchen, or the bedroom, much like a play would introduce a fairly large location (a train station or something) and confine our characters to one small chunk of it. Thus, it doesn’t seem odd that his story isn’t aided by flashbacks, which would often be the case for such things (as a director would welcome the change of scenery). He totally commits to the single location and compact cast. Kudos!
It also makes good use of Bell, who hasn’t gotten many opportunities to play a “villain” like this. I tend to think of him as a sort of “in over his head” nervous guy (King Kong, the recent Man On A Ledge), but he is legitimately scary here, further demonstrating his range – here’s hoping his agent is looking out for him as a character actor instead of just trying to recreate Billy Elliott. On the flipside, Cillian Murphy is a guy who tends to play more villainous roles in genre films (the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, Red Eye), or at least an antagonist of a sort (In Time), so it’s nice to see him in the hero position again. If it was a conscious choice to reverse their “usual” roles, it was a good one.
Thandie Newton is the heroine, and she’s fine. I’ve never been able to get much of an impression of her as an actress, other than the fact that she’s seemingly ageless. Like many thriller heroines of late, she’s pretty grating as a character; constantly snipping at her husband, doing rather dumb things in a panic, etc. I guess this is supposed to make us cheer when she finally gets her shit together near the end, but it’s getting tiresome to have to “grow to like” our lead characters. Can’t they just be normal people with problems that we can relate to, instead of obnoxious jerks? Ideally, my wife would be sitting there explaining why Cillian was the bad guy or whatever, but she was calling her expletives after like a half hour. You lost the female vote, Thandie!
But I’m used to that by now, so it’s not that big of a deal. My only real issue is one I’ve had with other “is he or isn’t he?” type movies, which is that in order to keep both options plausible, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for the movie to DO anything. Our characters can’t go outside, because if there IS a virus then they’ll get sick and the movie’s over. Plus that would mean he’s not crazy/a villain, so he won’t be playing mind games or trying to get Cillian out of the way to keep Thandie for himself (Dead Calm style). But if he IS the villain, he can’t out himself too early, because there’s not much to work with in an enclosed house with only two other people. Dead Calm had the two boats, after all. Thus, like I said, for the most part it’s only worth watching once, because the movie lives or dies on the lack of knowing the answers – there aren’t any great scare scenes to revisit, or a complicated plot to work out with multiple viewings.
Thus, Sony should have offered a little more meat on this DVD’s bones to warrant a purchase, because the 15 minute making of doesn’t quite elevate it above rental. It’s typical fluff, talking about the cast and finding the location and such. Only the reveal that David Tennant was originally cast (I could have sworn they said Cillian was cast in his place, but IMDb pegs him as being in the Bell role) is out of the ordinary. Tibbetts also says he was inspired by the same Polanski movies every single director ever name-checks, which tickled me enough to joke on Twitter about how I want to make movies just so I can offer inane blurbs on DVD making of pieces, like “This was my love letter to Jim Gillespie” or “I was going for a Joe Chapelle vibe here”. Seriously, modern genre directors – obviously Polanski’s films are great and huge influences, but you gotta stop making that your only frame of reference. I never once thought of him or his movies while I was watching Retreat, yet if you watch the making of first, you’d swear the movie was going to come across as a remake of Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby. Oddly, it’s more like Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt or Rear Window) than any Polanski I’ve seen, but I don’t think he mentions Hitch once.
With such a minimal cast, fans of any of the three actors will be pleased with this one, as they all get a lot to do and plenty of screen time. Thriller fans will also enjoy the fun mystery at its core, and that it’s from a first time writer/director (he doesn’t even have a short listed on his IMDb page!) makes it all the more impressive. Just don’t expect to be a movie you pull off the shelf too often.
What say you?