I remember vividly the first time I saw ROSEMARY'S BABY.
It wasn't so much the concept, or even the terrifying final moments, that struck such a strong chord with me. Instead, it was the sense I had of being completely doubtful of all that was taking place, while watching it. I was questioning everything. Rosemary's sanity, her husbands motivations, her neighbours strange, overbearing behaviour. I had absolutely no idea who the good guys were and who, (if any) the bad guys were. It was a wonderful feeling, to experience a movie from exactly the perspective the director intends you do. The feeling of questioning everything was intoxicating, and the pay-off was so expertly handled, I immediately proclaimed its director, Roman Polanski, a 'master of suspense', ( of course, everyone else already knew this. I was rather late to the party) Had I known his work I would've known just how well he could pull my psychological strings. For the duration of that movie, he owned me.
Amazingly, first time Writer/Director, Carl Tibbets, has managed to pull off a similar feat with his quietly excellent debut, RETREAT. He's created a work that draws you in slowly and subtly, until you have no idea what the hell is going on. Second guessing has rarely been as much fun.
That's it. That's the whole plot. The entire movie, (besides a few lines of dialogue from a local sailor), is a three hander. Tibbetts quickly sets up its premise and then allows the great writing and brilliant performances to do the rest. Almost immediately, you find yourself doubting the stranger who's arrival heralds in the Horror. Is he telling the truth about the situation on the mainland? Is it really a death sentence to leave the cottage? Is he some cruel, manipulative psychopath? Or is he simply a mentally ill soul seeking company out of desperation.Maybe he's just fucked up from that wound on his dome....
How would you handle the situation our young couple find themselves in? Would you leave the cottage, assuming this guy was a dribbling nutcase, or would you think maybe, just maybe, he could be telling the truth? Its a delicious set-up, and I guarantee you'll be bouncing back and forth in a state of confusion for the entire run-time. Tibbetts, and co-writer, Janice Hallett, have created one hell of a calling card.
The film, with its tiny cast and sparse locations, is obviously a low-budget number, but its ideas are big. Tibbetts knows that we Horror kids have pretty wild imaginations, and will do the groundwork ourselves when it comes to envisioning a (possible) apocalypse. Sure, the end of the world is not the point, but the simple thought of a world turning to shit gives RETREAT a sense of scope that's akin to Romero's seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Its actually easy to imagine this film being sold on the following concept : 'Imagine Ben enters the 'living dead' farmhouse ranting on about undead cannibals outside, and rapidly demands they other occupants board the place up, yet no-one else has actually seen the zombies. What do they do?'. Like all genius ideas, its simple as can be.
Whatever budget RETREAT'S producers may have secured must have been spent on the eccellent cast. All three leads are brilliant. We expect greatness from Cillian Murphy, (who has faced a lethal virus before in 28 DAYS LATER, lest we forget), and Thandie Newton has always been able to back up her beauty with raw talent, yet they both really excel here. As a character driven suspense piece, the films backbone is character nuance, and these two are engaging, sympathetic, and bring added complexity to an already complex relationship dynamic.
As for Jamie Bell; well, he's finally become the honest to god actor many of us hoped he always could be. In BILLY ELLIOT his youthful exuberance carried the film, and perhaps led us all to believe he was a far more accomplished young actor than he was at the time. The underrated DEATHWATCH, (his first Horror film, and well worth a look), afforded him the chance to make the transition from child actor to adult, and while he done okay, he appeared slightly unsure of his footing. He's always seemed a likable kid, with passable talent. Likable but not a very memorable actor. with RETREAT, he should see himself finally becoming a name to be reckoned with. His performance here is brilliant, and one of teh highlights of the cinematic year. Had this vital role fallen into the hands of anything less than a very skilled actor, the whole house of cards would have fallen, and Bell doesn't let the film down, at all. I never thought the porter kid from KING KONG could be so threatening, so intimidating or so scary. He's come of age with this performance. All the questions that the audience ask themselves rely on his portrayal of the mysterious, and possibly dangerous stranger. As well written as the character is, had the performance not sustained a very delicate balancing act between possible hero or villain, the game would be given away. As it stand, you find yourself hating him with one breath, and justifying his actions with the next. The choice to cast Bell was a risky one, but a wise one, indeed.
Now, with all excellent movies, you feel that familiar fear that the finale will somehow manage to blow the whole deal. And with a film where the search for answers is the whole journey, it had damn well hold up, come the final moments. Without saying anything else...it does. With finesse and with poignancy. There is little violence/gore, but it does hit pretty hard.
The only downside is that certain elements may remind the Horror-centric viewer of a little known film from a number of years back. I wont name it here, but it was a fucking good film, and overall, RETREAT really does plough's its own field.
If your in the mood for some slow-burn suspense, atmosphere to burn and some fantastic writing and performances, you could do much worse than check out this vastly underrated work. Carl Tibbetts is without doubt, a man to watch closely. This haunting psychological Horror is one of the years best.
8 Ballet Dancing Bad-asses out of 10