What to Watch Verdict
'The Retreat' earns its merit as a "good versus evil" standoff that swings axes with purpose even if progressive manifestos aren't as deep as intended.
🪓 It's vicious.
🪓 It's indulgent in retribution, not abuse.
🪓 Runs a tight production.
🪓 A rather simple formula.
🪓 Not making as big a statement it thinks.
🪓 Survivalist character is sometimes hard to believe.
Pat Mills’ overtly billed lesbian slasher The Retreat is indeed a lesbian slasher in that lesbians are targeted by bigoted rednecks who worship the “bury your gays” phrase as gospel. It aims to normalize LGBTQ+ content by furthering a minority’s abuse and trauma, which is indeed where catalytic horror sets its crosshairs. In a genre where trans and gay characters still fall into a trope of being tagged as the “deranged” killer—trust me, there’s a festival movie from not long ago you’ll probably never see that embarrassingly fails this test—The Retreat swings axes as a form of weaponized hatred, then catharsis. No doubt, what occurs is graphic and gutting whether that’s physical violence or transgressive, vile themes. The question just becomes, is this ceremoniously different than the queer stories horror’s striven to highlight in recent years? Or worse, is it closer to how these narratives had looked before filmmakers and audiences started questioning how gay characters are mistreated in horror cinema?
If you’ve seen backwoods kidnapping thrillers before, you’re ten steps ahead of The Retreat (not an outright dig). Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen) are joining another same-sex couple at an Airbnb rental for what’s labeled a “wedding planning getaway,” but they arrive at an empty house. The two women pack picnic supplies and take a leisure stroll down forest paths—Valerie prodding Renee with serious relationship discussions—until Valerie’s ankle snaps in a steel bear trap. Renee scrambles to release her partner, but the trappers reveal themselves and present a whole other problem when they find out ungodly sinners are sullying their territory.
Enter Aaron Ashmore as “James” and Rossif Sutherland as “Gavin,” alongside Gavin’s adoringly corrupted half “Layna” (Celina Sinden) as the film’s cruel punishers. Their backstory dips its toe into online waters, where isolated oppression can thrive in secret while fueled by chatroom anonymity and presence intimidates through hunting camouflage and cover-all masks. A glimpse into rural lifestyles that go unchallenged, and the animosity bred from the darkest internet reaches leaking through the screen. It’s a bit of two worlds colliding as in Deliverance without overly performative villains—it’s much sicker. Two men with a video camera and barnyard tools brutalize gay couples for thousands of online viewers with the same purification mindsets.
I highlight something like What Keeps You Alive—partners squaring off in an obscene survivalist scenario—as pushing the needle, while The Retreat belabors abuse. That said? It’s proficient and compelling in its straightforward demeanor. The anxiety of vacation voyeurism and oppressive paranoia within marginalized demographics is a tremendous stone to swallow. Alyson Richards’ screenplay carves away excess gristle that exposes the crimson, juicy meat of a barbaric horror story, while cinematographer David Schuurman uses the camera as an equalizer of justice. You’re correct to assume that The Retreat substantiates a narrative of revenge and comeuppance, which Schuurman emphasizes through the lens’ focus. It never overstays its welcome when agony is inflicted upon Renee or Valerie, always relishing counter-aggression towards the film’s detestable trio.
In terms of suspense and tension, I do wish The Retreat wasn’t lit so sparingly—nightshade darkness drenches leafless tree outlines to the point where visibility can be tragic. Still, Mills executes when the viciousness of deadly documentarians turns into something more tribal and euphoric. The emptiness within James and Gavin as they favor no mercy is the correct blend of unthinkable and engagingly morbid to the effect of bringing modern fears to light. Sharpened blades plunge into skulls, and gunshots splatter viscous brain matter onto windows—all while the intermediary stages of a blossoming couple become the backdrop that incentivizes their successful escape from calloused devils’ clutches. Some moments do question Renee’s backstory as a childhood deer hunter—the deers representing an innocent flock “culled” for no reason but containing numbers—but Mills’ steady command keeps conflicts tight and proverbial nooses tighter.
The Retreat is much like the blades that slice flesh at its most devastating moments: they’re sharp, glisten under the right light, and thrust right to the point. In simpler terms, Pat Mills accomplishes “get what you paid for” vibes without sacrificing conscious protest or skimping on genre extremities. It’s not precisely pushing dials to eleven but clocks you in the back of the noggin with enough force to rattle your bones. Dependable performances by Tommie-Amber Pirie and Sarah Allen bring the heartbreak and rallying cries to The Retreat when needed most, because there’s no way in hell these women are dying due to some “dudes in camo.”
The Retreat hits VOD on May 21st, 2021.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
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