Some Thoughts On… Retreat (2011)

Kate (Thandie Newton) and Martin (Cillian Murphy) are in trouble.  Married for a number of years, the couple’s relationship has been soured by the loss of a child resulting in them visiting an isolated island retreat in the hope of forcing themselves to have a proper conversation. Unfortunately, once the pair arrive on the island things go from bad to worse as instead of forcing them to communicate, the isolation offers up a myriad of displacement activities including fishing, running and the writing of incredibly bitter articles about why their marriage is doomed.

Slowly retreating into paranoia and mutual resentment, Kate and Martin are jolted out of their bitterness by the arrival of a wounded soldier.  Jack (Jamie Bell) informs the couple that a terrible pandemic is sweeping the world and that their only hope is to barricade themselves into their house and seal all the windows. Understandably sceptical, the couple play along on the grounds that even if Jack is lying, he is clearly a dangerous man who needs to be handled with care.

As he boards up the windows, Jack sets about playing on the couple’s fears and desires.  Initially, he plays upon Martin’s presumed masculine desire to protect Kate and to wear the trousers.  He then moves on to attempting to seduce Kate by suggesting that she resembles his late wife thereby tapping into both Kate’s frustration and her presumed feminine attraction to tough guys with a softer side.  While the couple remain sceptical about Jack’s claims of a pandemic, Jack’s ability to play Martin and Kate off each other does allow him to gain the upper hand, a position he begins to use quite skilfully once he finds Kate’s laptop and reads all about the couple’s marital difficulties.

Retreat is a film all about a relationship struggling with the cancer of distrust.  For a while, Jack’s ability to tap into the couple’s fears seems so uncanny that one begins to think that he might be some phantom either supernatural or psychological in nature and while the film regrettably down-plays this aspect of Jack’s character, there is a very clear evolution in the nature of the fears he uses in his attempts to manipulate the couple. For example, initially knowing nothing of the couple, Jack draws on quite widespread fears such as disease as well as a husband’s fear that he cannot protect his wife.  However, as Jack gets to know more about the couple, his lies become a whole lot more specific.  While I regret the fact that the script did not allow us more of a peak behind Jack’s thought-processes, I would still argue that Jack is the best thing about this film.  In fact, Bell’s performance is spell-binding and constitutes a timely reminder of why his name continues to carry a good deal of buzz despite its tendency to be attached to terrible films. Sadly, while Retreat offers Bell the opportunity to shine, the same cannot be said of Newton and Murphy who are forced to contend not only with a tangible lack of chemistry but also a tragically under-written script.

Retreat’s suffers for the fact that Martin and Kate’s relationship never feels unique enough to be real. This is somewhat odd given that the film takes a long time to settle into ‘thriller’ mode allowing oceans of space for the development of its central relationship. However, despite ample time and some real acting talent to draw upon, first-time director and co-writer Carl Tibbetts never quite manages to make the relationship progress beyond the merely generic. The problem is that while the idea of a couple struggling to stay together after the loss of a child is a firm grounding for a film about trust, it is not a particularly original idea.  In fact, the idea has featured in so many films that by the time Tibbetts and his co-writer Janice Hallett get round to it, it feels dated and generic.  This means that, in order to make the relationship seem real, the script and the actors needed to personalise it to the point where we feel that Martin and Kate are more than genre figures. Sadly, because neither Murphy and Newton’s performances nor the script bring that specificity to the table, Retreat’s central relationship fails to engage meaning that the film’s primary dramatic arc is as dead as Martin and Kate’s un-named child. The failure of this central relationship has a knock-on effect on the rest of the film.

The lack of emotional substance to Kate and Martin’s relationship means that Jack’s attempts to play on the couple’s mutual distrust is more interesting than it is emotionally compelling and because we are forced to engage with this unevenly paced thriller on intellectual rather than emotional terms, the film’s fundamental lack of depth becomes increasingly problematic as time goes on.

Retreat is, at root, a psychological thriller and as such it is part of a genre that thrives on the new.  Script-lead, these films typically rely for their effectiveness upon their capacity to surprise audiences through narrative innovation. This means that each new psychological thriller needs to work that little bit harder to break through to an audience raised on Basic Instinct, The Tenant and Memento. In fact, these three films demonstrate quite how much pressure there is on writers to generate something new.  Basic Instinct shocked mainstream audiences with its explicit sexuality, The Tenant shocked audiences with its inherited surrealism and Memento shocked audiences with its bizarre structure and psychological quirkiness.  One could argue that there is a screen-writing arms race raging in the psychological thriller genre and that this arms race has forced screenwriters to skew the genre away from the psychological and towards the fantastical.

As humans, we are trapped in a prison of pure subjectivity.  We know how we feel and we know how we see the world but we are forever separated from our fellow humans and we can never really know how they feel, what they see or what they think.  Because of this gap between minds, humans have developed an incredibly sophisticated of the human mind that we use to attempt to infer what it is that other people are thinking.  This model in referred to by philosophers as Folk Psychology.  The folk psychological model that we draw on as individuals is determined both by our individual experience and by our cultural history.  Indeed, one reason why the characters in classical plays frequently appear stilted and weird is because authors wrote them with radically different folk psychological models to our own.  Because our need to interact with other humans has forced us all to become amateur psychologists, we humans tend to have a pretty good nose for bullshit when it comes to characterisation.  In fact, one could argue that the challenge of characterisation is that of walking a tightrope between writing characters that we recognise as human and characters who act in individual enough ways that our folk psychological model is forced to adapt and encompass these new artistic insights into the human condition.  Unfortunately, our innate capacity to smell bad characterisation is something of a problem for writers operating within a genre that thrives on novelty and the unexpected.  Memento works as a psychological thriller because its central character feels real despite suffering from a condition that is genuinely novel from an artistic point of view but there are not that many psychological conditions that satisfy these twin demands.  As a result, many recent psychological thrillers have tended to rely upon a narrative twist grounded not in human psychology but in either fantasy or the madness of the main protagonist.

By anchoring a plot in magic and madness, a screenwriter is effectively admitting to throwing the rules of drama out the window. Once magic and madness have been invoked, audiences can never quibble about plot as all quibbles can be defused with a terse ‘of course it doesn’t make sense… it’s magic’.

Retreat attempts to double bluff its audience by raising the possibility of the fantastical only to resolve to a set of rules that are ultimately purely psychological; Jack is neither a phantom nor a delusion, he is just a desperate man with a knack for playing on people’s fears. Tibbetts and Hallett’s decision to forego madness and magic in favour of an old school Cape Fear-style psychopath is refreshing but it does show quite how sophisticated our folk psychological model has become, particularly in the light of numerous films that have set out quite explicitly to fuck with our capacity to read people.  Despite some neat ideas, Retreat never feels smart enough to scratch that genre itch.  It never surprises, it never wrong-foots, it never moves us out of our psychological or emotional comfort zones and it never for even an instant capitalises on its potential.  Perhaps if Martin and Kate had been better drawn then the film might have been more emotionally involving.  Perhaps if the script had explored Jack’s motivations a bit better then the film would have been more interesting but for a psychological thriller hoping to find an audience in this day and age, Retreat is nowhere near psychological enough.

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