Posted on January 14, 2016

Silent Retreat (2016) Review

Dawn Keetley

92 min   |  2016   |   (USA)   |   Ace Jordan

Grade: B-

Summary: Definitely worth watching. Great cinematography and suspenseful, well-told story, as well as its exploration of the double, elevate this film above the average.

Silent Retreat is directed by Ace Jordan, written by Jordan and Heather Smith, produced by Starko Entertainment, and was released to VOD and DVD on January 12, 2016.

Shot in a beautiful location on Big Bear Lake in California, Silent Retreat follows a group of media employees who head into the woods for a weekend retreat. They soon discover that the lodge they’re staying in was, not too long ago, a psychiatric hospital. And then the retreat participants start unaccountably disappearing.

I was definitely engaged by Silent Retreat, but I have to say up front that it has some significant problems. The writing (specifically the dialogue) was not great and neither, unfortunately, was the acting, which seemed generally to be of daytime-soap-opera quality. And as much as the story itself was one of the film’s strengths, I did see the big reveal (that is, the identity of the killer) coming from at least the middle of the film.

The real strengths of Silent Retreat are the cinematography (credit to Gregory White) and the narrative structure (along with masterful editing). These more technical aspects of the film, to put it bluntly, drive the film, not the actors or the character development.

In a story that was sometimes tedious (because I had a sense of what was coming and cared nothing about any of the characters), I did find myself drawn in, for instance, by the camera, which added a dread to the film that was otherwise lacking.

The shots below are from a scene in which one of the characters (Rita) tries to escape from a house in which she’s been held hostage. The low-angle heightens the desperation of her efforts (a), and then, after she crawls out the door, pushing it open as she goes, the camera stays

2. Silent Night, low angle 1

(a) low angle

focused on the door and the empty space of the house (b) creating the sense that something is there, and that she won’t be able to escape it.

(b) empty space

(b) empty space

Silent Retreat also becomes more narratively complex as it goes along, which helped immeasurably to heighten the suspense. Around two-thirds of the way through the film, as the identity of the killer is slowly revealed, flashbacks are increasingly cut into the narrative—both to several years ago (when the lodge was a mental health institution) and to a more immediate past. In all cases, the intercut flashbacks disrupt the flow of a singular narrative, interjecting a kind of double-ness—disclosing other stories that had been going on in parallel with the main narrative, unbeknownst to the viewer.

The film uses other means to heighten the trope of the double, including mirrors. In fact, the way in which the film develops the “double,” long a staple of both horror and the gothic, is one of its central achievements.

4. Silent Retreat kid in mirror

In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Freud wrote that the idea of the double originally emerged as “an insurance against the extinction of the self,” that the double was “a defence against annihilation.” The doubles of Silent Retreat perfectly reveal this psychic mechanism—showing how the double works to defend against the destruction of the self. And it also shows how that destructiveness can easily get turned outward—enacted on others.

In a film that ends up being all about the double—doubled identity, a narrative that doubles in time, that doubles back on itself—the killer’s animus is, significantly, directly against lying. “Liars must be punished,” as the film’s tagline tells us. Lying is double-speak, creating something other than the truth, a false double of what’s real. The killer, who is himself doubled (in more than one way)—and seemingly without being able to control that doubling—nonetheless rages against doubling as lying. For me, this paradox surrounding doubling—and the way it’s illustrated technically—was one of the most compelling things about the film.

A final point of interest: Silent Retreat offers a gruesome variation of the Anton Chekhov rule. As Chekhov famously wrote: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Silent Retreat instead suggests that if you mention a bear trap early in the film, it should be snapping around someone’s head before the film is over.

(a) low angle

(a) low angle

Check out Silent Retreat at: (trailers, interviews and behind the scenes videos)

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