A potential menage a trois of terror is served up as rather weak tea in “Retreat,” which fails to make its alleged suspense, thrills or even its mist-enshrouded landscapes particularly plausible. A name cast — and perhaps a trailer cherry-picking the film’s more dire moments — could lure an audience to British writer-director Carl Tibbetts’ debut, though it’s unlikely that viewers will be urging their friends to follow suit. Anemic theatrical play for this Sony pickup will be quickly followed by enfeebled DVD biz.
Taking its cue from the likes of “Knife in the Water,” “Dead Calm” and even “The Desperate Hours,” “Retreat” sets up a scenario rife with incipient psychosexual anxiety: a husband, a wife, an ominous intruder and a situation that imperils not just the couple’s physical well-being, but also their marital dynamic and the husband’s masculinity. What’s required, of course, is that the viewer empathize with the plight of the couple, and Tibbetts never quite gets us that far.
This is partly the fault of the setup in the script by Tibbetts and Janice Hallett. On an all-but-deserted island (the film was shot in Wales), the troubled marriage of Martin (Cillian Murphy) and Kate (Thandie Newton) has apparently come to die: A doomed pregnancy, an act of betrayal and a mistimed return to the birthplace of their once-happy romance has set them at odds with each other. But rather than atmospheric dread, the tone is one of domestic rancor; in other words, if someone were to barge in, he or she wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. Given the general tenor, a tsunami would provide comic relief.
Instead, we get Jack (Jamie Bell), a supposed member of the British military who washes up on shore with a bloodied head and a fantastic story: While Martin and Kate have been on their less-than-idyllic holiday, a worldwide pandemic has been wiping out humanity. In order to survive, Jack says, the three of them must board up the cottage, repel attackers and wait out the bacterial storm.
Not a bad idea, but one never quite buys it. Bell, who does a passable job selling himself as a latent psychopath, never for a moment convinces us he might be on the level, a crucial ingredient in making “Retreat’s” conceit work at all. The viewer has to harbor as much doubt as Kate and Martin about the nature of the situation — more, in fact, given the couple’s inane actions, such as giving Jack his gun back when there seems so little reason to do so.
Their quandary is understandable: They can’t raise anyone on the radio, no one’s answered their distress calls and Jack seems to know what he’s talking about. But the real reason they do what they do is very clear: It’s because the storyline has to move forward, through the various power shifts that comprise the action of the film, toward its various illogical conclusions.
Despite all this, the three principals acquit themselves well enough. Murphy’s alternately fragile and heroic characterization contributes to “Retreat’s” strange chemistry; it isn’t overdone, but Kate is remotely drawn to Jack, and so, in Stockholm syndrome fashion, is Martin. One feels the perfs working to heighten the complexity of the material, even as the nuts and bolts of it drag down the figurative ship.
Pic resorts more than once to the sort of jump-scare tactics that put the viewer on edge without providing the kind of substance to which such an ambitious thriller obviously aspires. Elsewhere, scenes are prolonged for cheap tension, ultimately allowing the imperiled twosome to act in ways so daft, one simply loses all respect for them. “Retreat” would make an interesting case study in why oft-used suspense-movie devices do or do not work, but not many viewers will want to fork over the price for such an academic exercise.
Tech credits are generally good, although the music cues are used like bludgeons and the cinematography does little to heighten the sense of terror.