Movie Review: ‘Retina’ a Low-Budget Paranoia Thriller
Poor April Watson (Lindsay Goranson): she caught her partner with another woman on New Year’s Eve, drinks herself to sleep every night alone in a new NYC apartment, and is plagued by horrific nightmares after signing up for a clinical study on a new sleeping pill.
But are they nightmares? Or are they memories of some kind of covert experimentation conducted on April while under the drug?
That’s the gist of Retina, a low-budget but polished little thriller that invokes the spirit of 70s paranoia thrillers like The Parallax View or The Conversation and 90s indie equivalents like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi.
Retina doesn’t come anywhere near those films, but it’s not for lack of trying: despite what must have been a shoestring budget, this is a slick and modestly compelling little film from writer-director Carlos Ferrer that alternates between genuine engagement, mild curiosity, and are-we-there-yet tedium.
For most of Retina, we know something is up. Clearly, the good Dr. Green (Gary Swanson, star of 80s crime classic Vice Squad) isn’t entirely on the level, heavily chastising April for drinking and assuring her that those other rough-looking patients in his waiting room have nothing to do with the medical research she’s taking part in.
And April’s visions, which involve men with knives in balaclavas and Clockwork Orange-like medical experiments, feel a little too cohesive to be just dreams.
Then there’s a third character, Brian (Ian Temple), who brutally kills April’s neighbor and communicates with a mysterious party about 'completing the job.' His story clues us in early that something nefarious is indeed going on, but ultimately leads nowhere.
There are few characters here beyond April, Brian, Dr. Green, an an interrogator (Ron Haxton) who questions April during a framing device, and large portions of Retina unfold without dialogue. But Ferrer does a good job of telling the story with visual information, and keeps us intrigued enough to wait out the movie’s big revelation.
Retina's explosive climax features far better CGI effects than we might expect, but still falls short of being fully convincing; modest production design, with minimal sets, costumes, and props, achieves the same result. The stark cinematography, efficient editing, and well-deployed score, however, all suggest a higher-level production.
But story-wise, Retina's climax falls even shorter; it comes across as a little gross and even exploitative, which is a surprise from the New York-based filmmakers.
Retina doesn’t land with the eye-opening reveal you might be waiting for, but it kept me intrigued enough to stick around and find out where it was going. This is clearly the work of committed filmmakers working with minimal resources, and director Ferrar is someone to watch. Next time, hopefully, he’ll be working with stronger material.