A young woman named Janey is sent to a special "retreat" after she is charged with assault. As part of her release program, she is sent to an isolated rehabilitation center that uses silence and meditation to help wayward women reform to fit in with society better. Janey, along with fellow prisoner, Alexis, discover the dark and terrifying secrets behind the facility. However, escape isn't so easy as there seems to be something equally terrifying residing in the woods surrounding them.
Note: This review could be spoiler-ish in some regards. I consciously tried to avoid getting too specific with some of the details because I'd hate to ruin the movie for someone, but there are some aspects that were unavoidable when talking about the movie. So I will say that you should read at your own risk. And not just because I'm a terrible writer (although there is that too).
With horror movies, it is hard to find a film that is not only good but actually has something to say between the grue and the gore. "Silent Retreat", the Canadian film that has garnered quite a bit of buzz recently, was not a film I was expecting to have something to say and one that impressed me with its quality.
After being charged with assault when attempting to defend herself from an attacker, Janey is sent to a special rehabilitation center that is run by a doctor and his two sons. The facility believes that silence and meditation is the best way to help Janey, along with the other women, in readjusting to become more productive members of society. Even though socialization is forbidden, Janey finds a friend in Alexis, who believes there is much more to the Doctor's program than what they are lead to believe. The two eventually uncover the dark secrets and the true intentions of the facility. In an attempt to escape they discover that there is something living in the woods -- something more terrifying than the doctor.
"Silent Retreat" was essentially a blind buy for me as I knew very little about the movie beyond that it featured Robert Nolan -- a man becoming a horror icon in his own right -- and the random press quotes I would see for the movie on various social media platforms. That and the artwork was eye catching as well. When the DVD became available from Black Fawn Distribution (the same company responsible for releasing "Discopath" and "In the House of Flies"), I figured why not, and I'm glad I did.
The movie is a mixture of social and traditional horror; while part of the plot is about people being stalked by something ominous at a rehabilitation center, the meat of the movie, however, is more focused on social issues regarding women. I'm sure the eyes will roll and audible sighs will be expressed, but fuck it, I personally loved that aspect the most with "Silent Retreat". Particularly because the movie never browbeats the audience with this theme or any of its themes. The movie is taking a genuine real world problem that women are facing and turns it into a creative outlet.
I'll try the best I can and avoid going into details since that would ruin the experience of the movie, but as you watch the mystery unfold about the truth behind the rehabilitation center, it becomes unsettling yet satisfying in its depth and intelligence. As the story reveals itself, it builds upon the layers of what the movie is about it, and I cannot imagine how anyone could not find an appreciation for that. The movie -- and Robert Nolan's performance as the Doctor -- is genuinely creepy in itself but the idea behind the movie is terrifying because there is a reality to the situation. This is something that could actually happen (or rather it does happen) because the antagonists in the movie represent a real threat that women -- everywhere -- have to deal with.
The writing from Tricia Lee and Corey Brown is exceptional. They managed to find a way to tie in Tricia's own experience at a meditation retreat (possibly Corey's too?) with this perpetual idea that women should be seen and not heard (while also always being subservient to men), and made a horror movie out of it.
What's also exceptional is that the subtext never gets in the way of the more traditional horror elements of "Silent Retreat". If you were to remove that subtext from the movie or perhaps remove the "there's something in the woods" story, you'd still be left with the same horror movie (just different stories). It's an instance where a movie can actually be called multi-layered, because it can still work the way it does and still be just as good even without the social commentary or subplots.
Regarding those horror elements in "Silent Retreat"; there is the plot about the truth behind the rehabilitation center but what surprised me was that "Silent Retreat" turns into a monster movie. While I may not have been clear about the movie's story since I went into it relatively blind, I at least figured the movie was going to be about the horrors of what the Doctor's real treatment was. I did not expect "Silent Retreat" to divulge into a full blown monster movie though. The good thing is that both plot lines are able to come together, seamlessly, since they could have caused the movie to feel disjointed because one plot is grounded in reality, while the other is more fantastical.
With that fantastical plot, it was nice to see a horror movie featuring a creature element to it that gets it right when it comes to revealing the actual creature. The atmosphere is built on the idea that something may or may not be out in the woods -- Is there something out there, and if so, what is it? It's what makes a horror movie actually scary, and not simply startling the audience with cheap jump scares. There are some flaws with the eventual reveal, because I think the movie could have benefited from keeping the creature hidden a bit more with shadows during the climax. Even so, that slow build up to the reveal was as close to being perfect as you can get with a creature-feature since that is exactly what you want with horror movies like this.
So, suffice to say, I was surprised and impressed by "Silent Retreat" and enjoyed it immensely. However, that is not to say the movie is not without its flaws. Some of it is nitpicking, such as having an issue with the creature in the movie having clothes, and others being technical issues. Particularly a moment between the characters Janey (Chelsea Jenish) and Alexis (Sofia Banzhaf) where they discuss what brought them to the rehabilitation center. It's a scene that brings the movie to a stop as it is needless character exposition and also because it feels rather forced. The flip side to that is that it's actually a well performed scene by the actors and it ties into the social themes of the movie: "…that's why we scream. To let the world know that we're still here and that we haven't given up."
Because it's a great scene for the actors and it isn't completely senseless, I hate to complain about it but it still felt forced, unnecessary for the characters and derails the pacing a bit. Those flaws are few and far between though. It is still a solid movie that delivered everything you could want. The plots, the subtext, the production, the cast, the atmosphere and the scares were all great. While "Silent Retreat" does have a fair amount of buzz surrounding it already, I can see it gaining more of a following and popularity. Simply because it is that good and well done, and because of the importance regarding its social issues.