Closed-room thrillers are a rare breed these days. While the idea of chucking some actors in a room with a gun and leaving them there until it all kicks off is an intriguing one, you get the feeling that it’s a formula modern directors approach tentatively, and with due cause. Closed-room thrillers run the risk of losing the audience’s attention (“Will they just kill eachother already?”) and can often turn into 120 minutes of actors screaming “Why can’t we just LEAVE?” at the camera.
While these kind of movies were masterfully churned out in the forties and fifties (12 Angry Men and Hitchcock’s The Rope spring to mind) they only get an occasional look in these days, and when they do, they tend to be full-on horror. The Exam and zombie movie Pontypool have been recent mild successes, but what happens when you stick in a crumbling marriage and emotional warfare? You get Retreat.
We open on married couple Kate (Thandie Newton) and Martin (Cillian Murphy) sitting on an old man’s boat looking suicidal. “Getting away from the little ones are ye?” says old man. Long uncomfortable pause. “Just a bit of peace and quiet really” responds the bitch-whipped Martin. We know straight away, because we are a well-trained, sensitive audience that Kate has obviously had a miscarriage and their marriage has fallen apart as a result. Martin has had the rather brilliant idea of fixing their marriage by taking them back to the plush guest cottage on the deserted island of Blackholme (sounds suspiciously like Blackhole. Foreshadowing, much?) where they once had a lovely holiday in 2002. Ahh, 2002. Such an innocent time for us all.
We spend the next while feeling sorry for poor auld Martin as he repeatedly tries to make an effort to cheer up an increasingly shrewish Kate by cooking her nice breakfasts and suggesting they go for nice walks. She glares at him, and we begin to suspect that this movie may indeed be Revolutionary Road. Oh, Thandie Newton. Thandie SHREWton more like.
Then the power goes out. And as we well know, whenever the power goes out, even if it’s just for a second, some messed up shit is definitely going to happen. Here, messed-up shit takes the form of Jamie Bell as Jack. Who, bleeding profusely, tells them that a deadly virus has broken out on the mainland, and in effect, the world is ending.
While Murphy and Newton both deliver solid performances, it is Bell’s Jack that makes the film so intensely gripping. Jack goes from affable scoundrel to complete psychopath in seconds, and the true magic of the movie stems from the fact that neither the couple nor the audience are ever quiet sure whether he’s lying or not. Rapidly turning their pretty cottage into a quarantine centre against the mysterious virus, Jack barricades the doors and windows. What Kate and Jack quickly realise is that it may not be the virus that is being kept out, but they who are being kept in.
Retreat is the kind of nail-biting thriller that will have you eating your whole hand off in slow-burning anxiety. While Bell is the unquestionable star performance, the undercurrent of emotional angst is well constructed by his co-stars. It also gives a refreshing take on the Apocalypse theme: ‘I know the world is ending and we might be dead tomorrow, but you’re still a dick, and I might hate you’ feels like a more realistic solution then the usual banding together against a common enemy lark. While the last thirty minutes are somewhat exhausting with constant threat-switching and gun-jumping, the final revelation is worth the wait.