This year’s Fantastic Fest went by in a blur, a seven-day avalanche of drinking, interviews, more drinking, and kick-ass genre-films that—from time to time—could feel a little overwhelming. While I managed to catch almost everything I planned on seeing during Fantastic Fest 2011, I was forced to skip a few flicks thanks to an already-crowded schedule. And so, when the folks behind one of those films– Carl Tibbetts’ Retreat— dropped me a line asking if I’d like to catch the film now, I was all too happy to say “Yes”. So, did I miss out on this one back when Fantastic Fest was in full swing, or would it turn out that Retreat was better left unseen? Find out after the jump, folks.
I’ve been going back and forth on my feelings regarding Carl Tibbetts’ Retreat since seeing the film a few days ago. On the one hand, I like the conceit at the center of the film, and I tend to enjoy all three of the actors who appear here (that’d be Thandie Newton, Jamie Bell, and Cillian Murphy). Furthermore, I enjoyed the way the film looked, and I really liked the sweaty, paranoid tone that Tibbetts maintained throughout. And yet…Retreat didn’t wow me, and I felt that—as written– all three of the main characters were a little annoying. And so, I find myself torn on how to rate this one. Let’s go through it a step at a time, and see if we can’t land on a final verdict.
Retreat begins with a married couple—Martin (Murphy) and Kate (Newton)—traveling by boat to the world’s most foreboding, isolated vacation spot: an island off the west coast of Scotland. There’s a cozy little cabin on this island, and we learn that the couple has decided to hunker down there for a while in order to work through some marital problems. What the problems are turns out to be irrelevant, however; this setup seems to exist only to give these characters a backstory. Well, OK, fair enough. I suppose that’s better than having the couple arriving on the island with no purpose.
It is worth mentioning, however, that the problems Martin and Kate are having seem to completely define their characters: Kate’s forever anguished over the loss of her unborn child, while Martin’s forever apologizing for not being there when the disaster occurred. Into this sunny little dynamic wanders Jack (Bell), a man dressed in soldier’s clothing, carrying a gun, and bleeding from the head. Actually, Jack doesn’t “wander” into the picture: he washes up on shore, and as soon as they’ve found him, Kate and Martin decide to drag him into the house to get him cleaned up.
Once inside, Jack wakes up, and almost immediately things get tense. Jack wants to board up all the windows, seems frantic, and after being pestered about his manic disposition by his new roommates, he eventually reveals that the rest of the world is currently experiencing a massive outbreak: some sort of disease has gotten loose, and people everywhere are getting sick and dying. Jack believes that others are headed for the island, that it’s imperative that all three of them shut themselves inside their cabin and wait for help to arrive. Naturally, Martin and Kate don’t know what to believe. Is Jack lying, just some crazy dude in camouflage waving a gun around…or is he telling the truth, trying desperately to save their lives?
Again, the central conceit’s a good one, and it’s great fun to watch the film and try and guess how you might deal with such a situation. The characters do react realistically to this unexpected development, and Tibbetts keeps things vague enough (a group of “visitors” that arrive on the island at one point are only seen by Jack, so we’re still unclear whether or not he’s telling the truth even after they’ve arrived, caused problems, and left) to keep us guessing about what’s real and what’s being imagined for a long, long time. The truth isn’t revealed until the film’s final fifteen-twenty minutes, and when it arrives, it actually surprised me and the other people watching the film: turns out, there was another solution to this mystery that we hadn’t guessed, and that’s the one Tibbetts went with. It’s a good one.
But again, while I liked the mystery at the heart of the film, I found it hard to invest myself in the well-being of these characters: Kate’s always crying and seems intent on punishing Martin for things that happened long before we met the pair, and Martin just seems weak-willed and unwilling to act for…well, for far too long. It’s hard to get behind the characters that are meant to be the audience’s stand-ins when they’re acting like whiny brats, and when they do finally decide to take action, it feels a little to much like “too little, too late”.
Thandie Newton, Cillian Murphy, and Jamie Bell (particularly Bell) all elevate the material they’re performing, though, and I think the film would’ve been far less enjoyable without them. True, I would’ve liked to have seen some better writing for these characters and a little more assertiveness from Kate and Martin earlier in the game, but these weren’t deal-breakers.
And so, after discussing the flick here, I find myself only slightly closer to being able to deliver a final verdict: Tibbetts’ film didn’t thrill me, but it also didn’t annoy me. Retreat is a tightly-crafted, suspenseful little flick that’s definitely worth a rental, even if it’s just so you can find out how everything plays out (again, the “reveal” is the best part of the film), but it’s far from the best thing that I saw at Fantastic Fest this year. Rent, but don’t go in expecting greatness.
My grade? B-