A married couple working through a personal tragedy fall victim to a deranged house guest in Retreat, starring Thandie Newton, Cillian Murphy, and Jamie Bell. The film is well acted, well directed, and contains a couple of surprises, but ultimately ends up being fairly boring. This general premise has been done many times before and done better.
Retreat opens with Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy heading by boat to a secluded island cottage as part of an effort to save their marriage. Shortly after they arrive, a stranger turns up at their door step unconscious, covered in blood, and carrying a pistol. When he comes to, the stranger immediately begins barricading the house against intruders and raving about a global pandemic. An airborne disease is wiping out Earth’s population, and he intends that the three of them wait it out together whether they want to or not.
Fortunately Jamie Bell has fallen into good company here. Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy are no strangers to apocalyptic plagues (see Mission Impossible 2 and 28 Days Later respectively). However, this sly bit of casting and the subplot concerning a world ending plague are a bit of a red herring. This movie isn’t an apocalyptic thriller or a zombie flick. It owes its lineage to a subgenre of the thriller that includes Cape Fear, Straw Dogs, and Funny Games. Despite what the promotional materials for Retreat may imply, this picture isn’t a survival horror, but an examination of masculinity.
In this narrow subgenre, we’re typically given a troubled couple or family. The female lead tends to be strong willed and the male lead tends to be weaker, overly cultivated, or effeminate (here, Cillian Murphy plays an asthmatic). Then a more brutish male or group of males appear and proceed to assert themselves in a variety of hostile ways. First they appear civil or in a position of weakness, then they begin to make uncivil requests, then the façade of civility completely gives way and they begin to wreak violence. Eventually, our male protagonist needs to sack up and defend his woman or family with force. (Or in the case of Funny Games, remain a passive sheep and get slaughtered as such.) I suppose this is a fairly sexist subgenre of the thriller, tending to treat women as prizes to be won through show of force, but these movies effectively play to a fear that resides in any man: that a bigger, stronger alpha male could turn up at any moment and steal everything you’ve built for yourself. For the most part, Retreat follows the road map drawn by its predecessors, but the writers also playfully subvert some of these conventions.
Director Carl Tibbets pulls solid performances from his leads. Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton effectively convey a disintegrating relationship with few words; their work is subtle and believable. Jamie Bell adds a layer of sympathy to the role of the outside aggressor, while still managing to portray something of an imbalanced predator. Bell invests his character with a sort of panicked conviction that makes him more than just another chauvinist villain. It’s somewhat refreshing.
The problem with this movie, however, is that Bell isn’t enough of a threat. A movie like this walks a tight rope. The protagonists need to be sympathetic, their actions understandable. If they’re too passive and weak in the face of adversity, they just end up engendering resentment. Then the movie just falls flat on its face, which is kind of what happens here.
Unlike in Straw Dogs, for instance, Murphy and Newton are only being terrorized by one man. And unlike in Cape Fear (either version), Bell isn’t playing a damn near supernatural force of violence and retribution like Max Cady. Early on, Bell effectively restrains Murphy and proves himself a physical threat, but he’s not exactly a terror. According to IMDB.com, Bell stands at 5’7, and, while he’s in good physical shape, he’s far from muscle bound. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where this couple, working together, could physically overwhelm Bell and brain him with a blunt instrument. But then I suppose the movie would end nearly an hour earlier. The protagonists do fight back, but their efforts just seem half hearted and lazy. It takes a little too long before a real confrontation is forced.
As a result, the main characters come off as passive and weak willed; the story stops being frightening and becomes maddening. Casting an actor of towering stature like Mark Strong or Idris Elba or Clive Owen as the intruder might have better served this film. At least then Newton’s and Murphy’s general reluctance to fight back would be more understandable. Hell, portraying Bell’s antagonist as being a little more vicious and bloodthirsty as opposed to frightened and apprehensive might have done the trick. But what we ultimately get is a movie where a couple of yuppies spend most of their time inexplicably cowering from a fairly average guy.
There are some things to like about Retreat. The direction is solid. The actors are solid (even Bell despite my complaints). The screenwriters are clever, and they plant a few surprises towards the end that invite the audience to go back and reevaluate the entire film. But they’re not quite clever enough. At least not clever enough to save this movie.