Directed by Carl Tibbetts
Retreat is an impressive effort for first time director Carl Tibbetts. How a young guy with no IMDB presence managed to score Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), and Thandie Newton (2012) to star in his tensely scripted, claustrophobic thriller about viral infection and societal collapse is anyone’s guess, but Tibbetts generally makes good use of his stellar cast and superb location and steers his directorial debut handily enough until the very end, where he smashes his film upon the rocks of an illogical, emotionally conflicted ending.
Retreat tells the familiar tale of a young couple on holiday trying to mend their broken marriage. In not particularly original fashion we learn that Kate (Newton) has recently miscarried and feels resentful toward her husband, Martin (Murphy). They have decided to return to a remote island to stay in Fairweather Cottage, where they had vacationed in earlier, happier times. Ample time is spent setting up their discordant marriage and lack of physical intimacy. Martin jogs along the coast, puffing his inhaler every so often, while Kate stays at home writing sappy bloggish memoirs about her disintegrating life. Not much sympathy is elicited in these scenes, which had me thinking more about how spoiled and ungrateful these two yuppy scumbags were than how much I wanted them to kiss and make up.
But into every life a little rain must fall, and for these two living under dark clouds of their own devising, a real storm is about to come. Their generator fails, and calls to the cottage’s landlord on the mainland go unanswered. Just when they start to worry, a bloody man dressed in army fatigues passes out in their front yard. They take him in, and upon his waking their situation takes a turn for the worse. Jack (Bell) is his name, and he says an airborne viral plague has been unleashed and is heading their way. He jumps into action, sealing windows and smashing furniture to create barricades, locking them all in together.
Retreat is at its best in the middle where the three-way relationship dynamics are investigated in their various permutations. Traditional town and country themes are explored as the lowlife Jack bosses the suburbanites around, causing Martin to seek alpha male approval and Kate to question her loyalty to her lame duck husband. In these moments you wonder about all the ways the film might play out. Is Jack’s story a hoax? Do Jack and Kate know each other? Maybe Martin is Jack’s gay lover and this is all an elaborate plan to murder Kate? While the ambiguity of their situation is kept intact for as long as possible, eventually the truth must come out, and because of how long the big twist takes to be fully explained, most of the drama is leeched out of it. For all the interesting ideas Retreat plays with, in the end it is the film itself that retreats into cliche, hastily revising character motivations, eradicating believability, and even to a certain degree likability of the film as a whole.
That said, the terrible ending is just one part of an otherwise pretty well made film. The rest of the picture has a lot to recommend it, from the outstanding performances, the blustery island location, the driving suspenseful score and the genuine tension and intrigue created right up until the final reel. Carl Tibbetts has proven he knows how to direct actors and write dialogue, but next time he may want to leave the plot to someone else.
3 out of 5