The broad strokes are familiar: a couple dealing with emotional strife goes away for a weekend, lands at a rustic/terrifying cabin, and finds themselves at the mercy of murderous freaks. The basic plot of Pat Mills’ “The Retreat” is so basic that it helped frame the tongue-in-cheek “Cabin in the Woods,” which itself unpacked and poked fun at all manner of horror tropes. Mills’ film, which screenwriter Alyson Richards loosely based on her own cabin-in-the-woods experience (no horror but plenty of actual fear, as she shared in a writer’s statement), attempts to subvert that setup by centering it around a lesbian couple.
Seeing a pair of women (Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen) occupy roles usually owned by straight couples, and bolstered by a plot that hinges on their sexuality, is its own kind of subversion. However, the real twist of “The Retreat” goes beyond that. What if, “The Retreat” wonders, they weren’t just a lesbian couple but a pair of women hellbent on survival and not making the kinds of mistakes so many Final Girls have made before? “The Retreat” is concerned with their sexuality, but what works about this low-key mix of “Get Out” and “The Hunt” is its interest in using its alleged subversions to more fully explore its leading ladies as people.
That’s not to say that it always works. Richards’ script is still prone to predictabilities, from the dynamic between organized Valerie (Allen) and messy Renee (Pirie) to the white trash hicks that begin to menace them (by the third time we see a local gas station attendant’s giant gut hanging out of his too-small tee shirt, we get it). But it’s also funny and self-reflexive, and Richards and Mills don’t waste too much time getting to its gory and gruesome point.
Valerie and Renee’s relationship is still new-ish, but it’s plagued by some lingering questions and frictions (namely that uptight Valerie, the kind of gal who doesn’t change out of her business suit for a weekend road trip, wants to define their bond, something that freaks out the freewheeling Renee). This weekend retreat (ostensibly to help plan the wedding of a pair of gay pals we meet in the film’s opening sequence) couldn’t come at a better time, and Valerie is delighted by the “amazing gay B&B owners” who allegedly own the place, all shiny happy smiles on the joint’s appealing website.
As the women set out for the Canadian countryside, Mills gamely threads the needle between what’s idyllic and what’s foreboding, what’s a bump in the road and what might be a warning, what’s just country life and what’s something far worse. He also teases out one of the film’s more intriguing ideas (and, unfortunately, ideas not satisfyingly interrogated): What the hell are most people doing on the Internet, really? Are the “amazing” owners of the retreat real, or a front that someone tossed up to lure people like Valerie and Renee?
That’s an idea that will both bolster and diminish the film’s rip-roaring slasher action. Mills doesn’t dally around getting down to business once Valerie and Renee hit the cabin and find things amiss (the film is a slim 82 minutes). Part of that speed is thanks to the duo’s excellent radar for bad stuff (refreshing!), though much of that zip is owed to the film’s inability to dig deeper into its intriguing mythology, meted out in little bits here and there. Soon, the women are at the mercy of a pack of creepy hunters who have their own plan for how to best serve the predominantly gay visitors who visit the cabin, and while it hints at something much bigger going on, “The Retreat” abandons that for its own brand of gory revenge.
Richards’ script and the film’s stars (particularly Pirie) allow for compelling explorations of Valerie and Renee, but “The Retreat” is less adept at navigating the much wider, weirder possibilities it begins to tease out. Instead, it fixates on awkward misdirects, like Renee’s ill-conceived belief that another woman she spies close to the cabin might help her, or the choice to obscure Valerie’s fate before ingloriously revealing it (this, we promise, is not a spoiler). There’s something much bigger afoot, something truly subversive and new, but “The Retreat” resists digging into that, instead leaning on its (admittedly, badass) leading ladies and their inspiring ability to kick butt. We love to see it, but we’d really love to see more.
Quiver Distribution will release “The Retreat” on digital and VOD on Friday, May 21.