Writer/director Carl Tibbetts certainly didn’t spare himself any narrative hurdles for his debut feature “Retreat.” In fact, one could argue that it’s nothing but narrative hurdles. The single setting film tosses together a psychological thriller, marital discord, sexual tension, an airborne virus and someone who may just be totally insane into a hearty stew that is unfortunately still somewhat flavorless. Curiously both overstuffed yet still empty, “Retreat” tries to be too many things at once and ultimately winds up having very little to show for the effort.
When the film opens, married couple Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) are headed to a remote island in Wales in a last ditch effort to patch up their marriage. At first, not much is said between the couple but the yawning chasm of the distance between them is palpable. The bookish Martin tries desperately to engage Kate by sporting a chipper spirit and inclusive attitude as he tries to share activities with her, but is consistently yet politely rebuffed. In what is the laziest device in the film, we quickly learn that Kate is writing an anonymous article about her relationship and what caused it to sour, and Tibbets has the audience literally read her computer screen as she works on the piece to fill us in on the story. In short, the loss a child in the fourth month of pregnancy has raised old issues to the surface and Kate is still not only devastated by the loss but by Martin’s emotional distance in the days that followed. But just as the two are about to stop tiptoeing around each other, and address the problems they have, a stranger arrives on their doorstep.
Covered in blood and carrying a gun, Jack (Jamie Bell) claims he’s from the military and he arrives bearing some rather unbelievable news: an airborne, highly contagious virus from South America has been on the loose and is now in England. There is no cure, and for their safety, the will need to seal off the windows and barricade the doors against anybody who will try to find safe haven with them. Naturally, Martin and Kate don’t quite believe his story — and frankly think he might be stark raving mad — but his conviction is undeniable and coupled with the fact that they haven’t able to reach the caretaker of the cabin who is their only sole contact off the island, a part of them believes him. But this sets up the first in what becomes a series of Characters Making Terrible Choices — Jack offers both Martin and Kate a chance to leave and they turn it down. Martin rationalizes by saying the mainland is too far to row to and the weather is too cold to make the journey. He convinces Kate they should stay and play along with Jack until they can find a moment to turn the tables on him. But if it were us and a blood covered man came in talking about a crazy virus that is wiping out everything in its path? Yeah, we’d take the rowboat.
Anyway, the three form a contentious alliance that is rarely harmonious, but certainly devious, as each member of the triangle continually tries to gain the psychological if not the physical upper hand. When it comes to brute strength, there is no doubt that that tattooed, trim and buff Jack could easily take Martin and Kate down if it came to it. By the same token, Martin seems keenly tuned into just how to play Jack’s game will waiting to find his entry point to make a decisive blow. But the tensions are insurmountable and anything is fodder for a weapon. Jack uses Martin and Kate’s relationship woes as a wedge and later finds out a piece of intel that he uses as leverage on Kate. But soon, both Martin and Kate band together to leave the house and save their lives, but not before the latter reveals the dark secret she’s keeping to get them on equal footing. And when she reveals what it is, a few tears and quick hug later, all is forgiven in a scene is barely indicative of real life. Without spoiling the reveal, Kate essentially betrays a huge trust issue in the relationship that again, any rational person, would not be able to shrug off. Tibbets tries to have the extreme nature of the circumstances short hand the character work but you simply can’t have it both ways. Needless to say, after this revelation, the film descends dully into standard thriller fare.
And it’s in the last act of the film, where the once promising and rich premise gets mostly tossed out for some fairly boilerplate genre histrionics. Not quite sure of where to take his film emotionally or simply in the name of decent storytelling, Tibbets piles on a handful of twists in the last twenty minutes, none of which offer a compelling payoff. But not only that, as we finally find out the real story behind just who and what Jack is, it causes a rift in the logic of the film. Again, without getting too spoilery, if Jack had simply revealed everything he knew honestly when he first met the couple, much of his later actions, confessions and even regrets wouldn’t have been required. And the more you consider the plot, the easier it is take the one loose story thread and unravel the whole shirt. We’re not even going to get into another example of Characters Making Terrible Choices where again, Martin discovers a way to leave but he and Kate resolutely decide to stay even after a shocking discovery.
Though the film is ultimately a non-starter, it does establish that Tibbets does have a good command behind the camera (though maybe he should let someone else write the script). While the action of the film mostly takes place in three rooms, he keeps the camera moving and generally prevents the setting from become stale. Perhaps the best discovery of the film is the nervy performance by Bell, who impresses as the ripped, paranoid Jack in a turn that ably suggests he’s got healthy career ahead of him playing a wide variety of moral complex characters. Also notable is that standout score by frequent Matthew Vaughn collaborator Ilan Eshkeri. Having previously tuned up “Kick-Ass,” “Stardust” with Ralph Fiennes‘ “Coriolanus” around the bend, for “Retreat” the composer delivers an Alexandre Desplat worthy work that perfectly hones in to both the drama and anxiety rippling through the players of the story. It’s impressive stuff.
“Retreat” never quite comes together because it doesn’t really know what it wants to be and/or tries to be all things. As a virus thriller we’re never quite sure if it’s real or how horrific the damage can be if infection sets in, as a psycho-sexual potboiler the story doesn’t get heated enough, and as an exercise in paranoia Tibbetts can only find a few notes and tones and then he hammers them incessantly to increasingly lessening impact. “Retreat” tires to infect, but an antidote of much better, similarly styled films keeps it from spreading. [C]