By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
The psychological thriller genre’s always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me. It’s not quite drama, not quite horror, now quite action… and for such a thematic bastard child, it’s usually pretty formulaic: A) a protagonist (or romantic pair of protagonists) with B) a past secret or tragedy C) find themselves in a dangerous situation they don’t understand, D) facing a mysterious antagonist. Red herring, red herring, plot twist, facing up to fear/past, confrontation, role reversal?, plot twist, the end… or is it? Even subverting these conventions has itself become pretty conventional, so it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to get all that excited about thrillers these days.
If that was boring, read it again while imagining this monkey saying it
Retreat is solidly in this territory. It tells the story of A) a married couple played by Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton dealing with B) the loss of a child, who take a vacation on a remote Scottish isle where they first kindled their romance. Nobody else resides on the island, so when D) a mysterious stranger (Jamie Bell) with a pistol shows up on their doorstep, with the tale of a global pandemic and insisting that they C) hole up in their cottage against a possible assault from the infected, things begin to spin out of control.
Retreat does one thing well that often sinks unsuccessful thrillers. It takes its time introducing us to Murphy andNewton’s characters and examining how the loss of their child has colored their relationship. So, when inevitable danger comes their way, our empathy raises the stakes. Textbook stuff, but too often done poorly.
All of the leads do a good job with their parts, but the one that has to do the most heavy lifting ultimately is Jamie Bell, and he does it with aplomb. He’s a standard mysterious psychotic for a good chunk of the film, but when a plot twist throws a wrinkle into this he really gets to shine. Also, you have to raise your glass to a man who can be convincing as a dangerous badass after starting his career playing an adolescent ballet dancer.
Billy Elliot’s had some hard times since we last saw him
Lastly, I have to toast the demented, balls-to-the-wall ending. Thrillers in particular are dependent on sticking the landing, and this film does a good job of that.
Unfortunately, it keeps derailing its momentum on the way there. The movie’s only about 90 minutes, but it feels like they only had enough ideas for 70. It’s padding gets pretty repetitive.
Ditto the violin-heavy score. If you’re forced to resort to overdramatic music to get the audience to feel, then you’re doing everything wrong. If the actors are creating empathy all on their own, punt the score.
This last beer goes to that super-boring introduction. There are a couple of twists that are effective, and I liked the ending, but I ultimately couldn’t shake my been-there, done-that feeling about the movie.
Cillian Murphy, isolation, global pandemic… nope, not ringing any bells
It’s nothing special, but if you need to scratch your ‘thriller’ itch you could do a lot worse.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a past tragedy is referred to or hinted at
Take a Drink: every time somebody tries to fuck with somebody else’s head
Take a Drink: every time someone busts some wood
Do a Shot: for every reversal of roles