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Fantastic Review: ‘Retreat’ Wants To Be ‘Dead Calm’ On An Island, But Forgets To Cast Australians

By  · Published on October 7th, 2011

Retreat features some sweeping exterior shots and action, but for the most part it stays contained within a single home on an isolated and otherwise empty island. Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) have come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and to try to deal with a recent, undisclosed rift between them. They’ve had happy times at this cabin in the past and are hoping to recapture that magic, but their attempts at reconciliation are interrupted by the arrival of a battered and bloodied man named Jack (Jamie Bell) who they find unconscious and armed outside.

Their act of kindness is soon punished with unwanted knowledge when he awakens and shares what brought him to the island. It seems a deadly and unstoppable virus has begun ravaging the outside world, and their only hope of survival is to seal up the cabin until the airborne danger has passed. The island has no telephone access. The CB radio they’ve previously used to contact the mainland is strangely silent. And Jack strongly insists both for their safety and his that they follow his instructions.

And a man with a gun can be fairly convincing…

Retreat features one hell of a premise. This “what if” scenario is automatically thought provoking and exciting as the question it poses is a compelling one. What would you do if a soldier appeared and told you with conviction that the world as you knew it was effectively over… and you had no way to confirm it without sentencing yourself to death. Now add in a loved one, and ask yourself if you could or would risk their life on your belief that this stranger wasn’t telling the truth.

It’s a fascinating concept, and a few missteps aside the film and the characters handle this dilemma pretty damn well. Mistakes are made, both ones that serve the story and ones that should have been cleaned up in rewrites, but it works as a whole. Director/co-writer Carl Tibbetts and co-writer Janice Hallett do a solid job with a premise that feels like they’re painting themselves into a corner only to deftly sidestep their way out of it with new revelations and devastating actions.

In addition to the mostly strong script the film is aided with two great performances from Murphy and Bell. Their clash of masculinity never reaches ridiculous levels but instead stays rooted in realistic actions and reactions. Murphy’s Martin is a man who at first defers to military authority and the responsibility of protecting his wife, but he’s not shy about stepping up his game when necessary. And Bell impresses as an imposing force in a misleadingly short package. He’s buff and uses his intense stare to great effect.

Films that take place in a single location can be a difficult prospect for filmmakers to pull off successfully. The story and characters have to be engaging enough to hold the attention within a world of limited scenery. Phillip Noyce’s excellent Dead Calm is a fantastic example of a single location thriller that works beautifully. Most of the film takes place on a sail boat and sees a young couple’s cathartic vacation halted by a damaged and deranged third party.

I used that Australian film as an example for a reason as Retreat is quite clearly inspired by Dead Calm. The details are different, but the films’ basic structures are almost identical. This new homage doesn’t quite reach the heights of the earlier film, but it succeeds fairly well in creating its own twisted and claustrophobic world complete with a pretty ballsy third act. Newton’s performance, and to be fair her character, occasionally tease annoyance, but the film as a whole is suspenseful and will keep you guessing through to the end.

The Upside: Fantastic “what would you do?” premise; Cillian Murphy and Jamie Bell give strong and convincing performances; script keeps viewers guessing; commits to a solid ending

The Downside: Thandie Newton; couple drama feels forced and ultimately inconsequential

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.