Retreat sports some high-caliber actors in what is a claustrophobic home-invasion thriller a la Straw Dogs. Premiering (U.S.) at Fantastic Fest 2011, Retreat stars Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later), Thandie Newton (M:I 2) and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot).
Murphy and Newton play a troubled married couple, Martin and Kate, holidaying on a remote British island called Blackholme Island. The cottage they are renting has its share of problems, with a generator that keeps going out which architect Martin is unable to fix, and a CB radio on the fritz. When a wounded stranger collapses practically at their door, the couple brings him into the cottage and inadvertently start a deadly chain of events.
Besides being armed with a gun (that they wisely take off him when he’s still unconscious), the man wakes up with a wild tale of an airborne contagion that is spreading throughout the mainland. He claims he was attempting to escape the disease when he came to the island, and that his boat crashed.
He also insists that they start preparing for the people who are going to come and try to break in, and also guard against the contagion itself by putting plastic sheets over all the windows and boarding up the doors. When Kate balks at Jack’s story and his orders, his behavior becomes vaguely threatening and the barricades begin to go up inside the cottage.
Soon Jack’s subtle threats turn overt and physical as events spiral out of control. As tensions rise, Martin and Kate try to get at the truth of the situation while dealing with their own relationship issues.
Retreat is a boiling pot waiting to overflow. Throw in a dangerous stranger and a deadly virus, and you have some tension-fraught drama. It doesn‘t hurt that Newton and Murphy are masters of their craft, and the child actor we all loved from Billy Elliot proves he can take on characters all grown up and then some.
Bell added a great menace to the character of Jack, belied by his size and physique. He also managed to work in some dimension to the character with a touch of vulnerability. That he brought so much to a “villain” role really impressed me and in the end, he had stolen the show.
Newbie director Carl Tibbetts used some interesting style to build the tension. There were the extreme close-ups, some intriguing angles, but most importantly he let the environment do much of the work itself. The bleak shores of Blackholme Island and the sense of isolation that sprung from the rocky crags and lack of inhabitants was as effective as any brazen camera work might have been.
The cottage, as it begins to be boarded up from the inside, also played an important role as the sense of claustrophobia grew. The spaces inside seemed to shrink as the three inhabitants grew wary and weary of one another.
All in all, Tibbetts’ first feature length film Retreat proves he can build some tension and deliver a solid thriller with a limited budget and a cast of only three. He also co-wrote the script, which has some interesting twists and turns but tended to drag at the beginning of the film.
What stood out in a big way was the sweeping orchestral score. At first, it was moving and increased the scope of the film with its depth. But towards the end, and particularly at the climax of the film, I felt this score was just too heavy and too melodramatic. Instead of building tension at that point, it became almost a tella novella moment (read Soap Opera).
Overall this was a solid film. When done right, the home-invasion movie recipe can be both entertaining and thrilling. Despite some melodrama, Retreat boasted a great cast that made the more unpalatable sentimental moments bearable, and a claustrophobic tension that made the thriller aspects of the film work.
Make sure to check out our interview with director Carl Tibbetts next week.