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I'll concede that after six days of the marathon that is Fantastic Fest, my standards may be a little lower, but I was pleasantly surprised by "Retreat," a film that appeared to be scheduled by virtue of a name cast rather than because of the strength of its narrative and…well, it was to some degree. But it's also the type of psychological thriller I'd always hoped Neil LaBute would translate to the screen, recreating the paranoia that drives his work as a playwright where extraordinary real-life fears are merely extensions of the existing irrationality amongst its players. (His stab at “The Wicker Man” would, of course, take it five or six steps too far.)
"Retreat" would actually work better as a play since it has a limited setting, four characters at most and director Carl Tibbetts would be less tempted to amp up a heavy-handed score. But as it is Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy make do as Kate and Martin, a couple on the rocks both literally and figuratively when they travel to an island to work on their marriage and tensions only rise when their electricity goes out, leaving Newton, a writer, the ability to write about just how poor relations are between she and her husband in her MacBook.
If this sounds a bit mopey for a start, it surely is as it heads in the direction of either a Lifetime movie or potentially the second remake of “Straw Dogs” within a month. But soon enough, if you're the type that appreciates when characters from a bad movie are confronted by the character from a good one, you’ll welcome a blood-streaked Jamie Bell with open arms as he stumbles uphill to their cottage and brings with him an interesting conceit.
After blacking out, Bell’s Jack finds himself on the couple's couch where he awakens to inform them that he’s a military man whose boat was shipwrecked, though he’s clearly hiding something. He’s forthright about fixing their most immediate problem, the power generator, but he introduces many more when he warns Martin of an epidemic of global proportions that makes the couple’s isolated location a perfect getaway. Jack is convincing enough to excuse his erratic behavior, yet when armed with a gun and obviously more baggage than the couple he's settling in with, he's certainly not trustworthy.
Tibbetts toys with the fact you never know whether Jack’s virus is anything more than a conspiracy theory for all it’s worth, as does Bell, who plays the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-psychopath as just grounded enough to give "Retreat" the subversion of audience expectations it needs. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for other elements of the film, including the slow rollout of Newton and Murphy's relationship woes, which are particularly soggy since they're unforgivably tear-soaked, and the film's rather flat production values that let the performances pop since there’s little texture elsewhere. Yet "Retreat" goes to some places you don't expect it to go, ultimately concluding in a divisive manner that will either be seen as unsatisfyingly convenient or completely in line with everything that’s come before.
As a result of Tibbetts and co-screenwriter Janice Hallett’s determined plotting, which always stays just ahead of its characters, I felt it was the latter, an exclamation point on the desperate, collective yell of all three trying to break free of their circumstances. Although the voice quivers as it reaches for a higher pitch, it’s interesting and urgent enough to pay attention and whether or not Jack is telling the truth about the spread of disease, “Retreat” is the type of B-movie that grows on you.
"Retreat" will open in limited release on October 21st.