Silent Retreat (2013) **1/2
Dir. Tricia Lee
Starring: Chelsea Jenish, Robert Nolan, Sofia Banzhaf
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There are simply so many things wrong about this movie which, makes it especially frustrating to assess since the few elements that are right about it, are so very, very right on! Alas, those positive elements are almost buried by the film's problems - its two most woeful elements being a dreadful screenplay by Corey Brown (from a story by Brown and director Tricia Lee) and the movie's uncertain tone (which in fairness is rooted completely in the aforementioned poor writing).
On the surface, the high concept of the piece isn't bad. A mysterious juvenile detention camp for wayward teenage girls is located deep in the woods (one road in, one road out). It takes only five inmates at any one time and the rules are very simple - NO TALKING. None. Nada. Zip! Girls who are especially problematic are expelled, though in reality, they're dragged into the woods, chained to a tree and sacrificed to a monster that lives there. Hey, in theory, I've got no problem with this at all.
In practise, however, it's a completely different story. The first two-thirds of the film plays - both in story and direction like a very lame and tame young-teen-oriented thriller. This might have been acceptable if the pace and overall solitude didn't give an audience time to start asking questions (either to themselves, or most annoyingly, out loud to whomever they're watching it with). Some of the questions are eventually answered, but they come much too late in the proceedings since we've already been yanked out of the drama way too many times wondering about elements that could have been dispensed with so much earlier on.
A number of the revelations are withheld from both the audience and the characters and this is a huge mistake. In fact, the "mystery" isn't all that very interesting anyway. We know there's something really wrong with this juvie camp for girls right from the get-go. The entire movie would have worked so much better without this muddle and allowed its director to concentrate on really creeping us out and scaring the bejesus out of us right from the get-go.
And ugh, speaking of right from the get-go, there was absolutely no reason to begin the movie showing a juvie teen girl who we never meet again, chained to a tree in the woods as we hear the approaching growls of some mighty hungry-sounding creature. And ugh, there really was no reason to even begin from the beginning as Janey (Chelsea Jenish), our heroine, is brought into the camp. So much running time is boringly wasted on cliched storytelling when deep down, there's a tale - a reasonably original take on one, anyway - that's desperate for some sort of simple (as opposed to simplistic), clean and at the same time, sophisticated approach.
For example, there's a pretty okay bit of writing that's very nicely played by a wonderful character actor whom I have - to my knowledge - never seen in anything before. The character is that of the Doctor (Robert Nolan), the commandant of the camp and he lays out the ground rules for Janey. At least a third of his speech could have appeared off-camera as we were delivered some of the visuals in the opening before we join the conversation in progress. This, by the way, is where some very basic expositional information could have been slipped in for our benefit so we didn't have to be wrenched out of the drama at later junctures wondering about it.
I do so wish more young filmmakers who want to tackle genre material thought more about giving US all the information we need or want and withholding it from the protagonists so that we're never in the dark, but are, instead even more on the edges of our collective seats as the "ignorant" heroes are sucked into a spider's web that we already know is there. Like Hitchcock so often said (in a variety of ways), if a bomb is planted on a bus, it's not the explosion that will be the horrendous thing to draw out the suspense, but it's US knowing the bomb is there and where it is and following our protagonists into this horrendous situation. In any event, the screenplay for this film had so many elements like this, that unnecessarily turning them into mysteries did little to keep our interest in the story and characters' trajectories, but rather forced us into ALWAYS being in the same position of ignorance with said characters.
Another woeful element is the promise of a movie that could have really delivered big time on the perversity front. We've got a private juvie joint in the middle of nowhere that takes in a select number of "bad" girls - all of them, of course are, thankfully, babes and its run by this creepy old dude and his inbred sons who assert weird dominance therapy including hypnotism and mysterious trips into a cabin. And, of course, I have no idea the ages of the actresses in this film, but let's be frank, if they were or are all "of age", there are clearly exploitative genre tropes that are begging to be employed. In fact, employing them might have worked wonders in terms of beefing up the strange Stepford Wives indoctrination going on.
There was also a great opportunity to put a crazy, sexy spin on all the great juvie pictures of the 50s and the women in prison pictures of the 70s. Again, I reiterate - we've got five babes in a completely whacked-out juvie joint and most importantly: There are showers, there are beds and even a creepy comment from the doctor warning against sexual improprieties. Puh-leeeeeeese, don't put this potential for exploitation in our minds and NOT deliver on it.
One of the biggest disappointments is when we discover that the girls are being subjected to a barrage of propaganda on film. This too is a great idea, but the images themselves are so dullsville (and dispensed with so quickly) that instead of getting something similar (in terms of power and impact) to the images of violence Alex is forced to endure in A Clockwork Orange, or better yet, in the perverse propagandistic "test" given to prospective political assassins in Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View, we get lame, thoroughly unconvincing images. I'm not suggesting the filmmaker needed to copy these scenes, but instead, needed to find a way of selecting and presenting the images so tied more directly in with the weird group hypnosis scenes and then, on a visceral level, for them to knock us on our collective butts. This was clearly the intent, however, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions - which also seems to be something one can use to describe so much of the film and its failings.
This goes on and on - PG-rated incidents, rife with confusion and then we eventually get slammed with the final third of the film that's anything but PG or PG-13 or even R. The climactic scenes of the film are so deliciously over-the-top, really well directed and edited (by Mike Reisacher) that the filmmaker's intent to provide something very quiet and ominous in the first two-thirds could have worked so beautifully - IF, the writing had been up to the fine idea and most importantly, if the utter, sickening, creepy perversity of the situation had been amped up.
The other dreadful element is the musical score by Aaron Gilhuis - a godawful, by-the-numbers series of plodding riffs that are always leading the action rather than providing a supporting bedrock or thematic foundation to the proceedings. In fact, so much of the score could have been dispensed with entirely. Given the fact that we're in the middle of the wilderness would have lent itself to creating a rich soundscape to capture, replicate and even enhance the malevolence of the natural world as juxtaposed with the overt malevolence of the three creepy guys running this madhouse.
The biggest script problem, however, is the monster itself. We wisely don't get to see it until the final third, but I still have no idea what it is, why it's there, where it comes from and why there's only one? At first, I assumed there might have been a bigfoot angle or maybe a bunch of genetic inbred mutants suffering the effects of a nuclear power plant meltdown or something. (Northern Ontario, where the film appears to be shot in and set, is full of hidden environmental crap like that.) But what we get is something that resembles the creatures in The Descent (now THAT is a great contemporary horror film) and their existence made sense within the context of caves deep beneath the earth's surface. Here, we get one such creature - not too badly designed either - but we really have no idea what it is. It's never enough that it's a monster and it's just conveniently there. It's a cheat of the most egregious kind.
So, what's on the plus side? Well, a genuinely kick-ass final third (even though the creature elements make absolutely no sense) and three tremendous leading performances. The camera adores both of the female leads in the picture and Robert Nolan is an absolute revelation. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why isn't he cast in every genre picture in this country? And better yet, if he was, he'd build up so much great work that we might even start seeing him in American indie and/or studio pictures. Nolan has a phenomenal look, intensity to burn and an almost puckish sense of sicko humour roiling just beneath his flesh. Alas, none of this is exploited completely here, but I'm grateful to have been introduced to him and hope to see him flex his thespian muscles in other movies. This guy is an A-1 psycho villain. That said, he's got such clearly natural chops that he needs to be cast in as many pictures as possible. (He also bears a striking enough resemblance to Leonardo Di Caprio that he'd be a natural to play the kid's Dad or Uncle or older brother.) Canada always blows it with their leading ladies and men and the country especially blows it with all the fine character actors. I'm delighted that the makers of Silent Retreat didn't follow in the footsteps of so many other Canadian filmmakers and populated it with solid actors that - and this is ALL important - the camera LOVES.
Speaking of visuals, I was also impressed with the cinematography by Christian Bielz - especially the night exteriors. As someone who lives much of his time in the middle of absolute nowhere, I was impressed with the look and lighting of these scenes. For what seems like decades now, Canadian movies always used this horrid blue gel over the lights for night exteriors - so much so, that I nastily and dismissively referred to it as "Canadian Blue". Here, though, we get that wonderful sense of pitch black, but with both dollops and swaths of a kind of gentle white light which is actually what the eye sees in deep bush. Even when it's overcast and/or the sky isn't lit up with a bright moon, the stars are so intensely bright that they do indeed cast a very cool glow over everything. And, uh, it's not blue.
Alack and alas, what is blue, though, is how I feel when I see a low budget genre film that is bursting with potential, but never goes the distance. I hope at some point, director Tricia Lee gets to work with a great script, but that also, she uses her instincts for horror to shock and scare us - not with what we DON'T know, but what we do know.
"Silent Retreat" is part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2013. Visit the website HERE.