"The Return" has a lot going for it. The setup and general idea for the plot are creepy and just out-there enough to hold one's interest. The South Texas locations, complete with tranquil vistas, lonely backroads, and ramshackle buildings, stand out as being particularly area-specific and atmospheric. The cinematography by Roman Osin is the perfect mixture of gritty and slick, giving the film a respectable, brooding cinematic look. And its star attraction, Sarah Michelle Gellar (2004's "The Grudge
"), certainly knows her way around the thriller genre. Where "The Return" majorly fails is in the way its core mystery is so haphazardly handled. For 75 minutes, the viewer is left to wonder what is going on while being assured that all will be clarified by the end. Not so. Instead, "The Return" barely answers any of the questions it poses and then frustratingly cuts to credits without a conclusion that is not the least bit coherent.
Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a hardworking 25-year-old sales rep for a St. Louis-based trucking company. On the road more often than not, Joanna has had the nagging feeling ever since a traumatic childhood car accident that someone or something is right on her tail. Because of this, she keeps on moving, but a return to her home state of a Texas and a stop in the dusty nowhere town of La Salle invite mounting nightmarish visions that are either really happening or part of her unraveling mind. As Joanna is drawn further into La Sallea town she can't remember ever being in before, despite clues that she hasshe finds herself befriending the mysterious but protective Terry Stahl (Peter O'Brien) and attempting to elude a long-haired stranger who is following her. It all seems to be connected to the auto accident she was in with her father (Sam Shepard) when she was younger, although there is convincing evidence that even director Asif Kapadia doesn't have a clue how all of his spare parts fit together.
The theatrical trailer for "The Return" sets the picture up as a supernatural horror movie in the vein of "The Grudge
," which it is nothing like. Audiences duped into seeing the film expecting a jump-out-of-your-seat entertainment instead will find a low-key, slow-moving thriller with more in common with David Lynch than a body count flick. As such, "The Return" is captivating for most of its running time and riles up several genuinely creepy moments. The repeated use of "Sweet Dreams (of You)" by Patsy Cline is chillingly incorporated into the proceedings, a sequence where Joanna attends a livestock auction brings added texture to its setting, and as a put-upon heroine, Joanna is a bit more complicated than the norm.
Sadly, "The Return" is by and large a mess, and its repeated release date shifts for the last year only confirm the overwhelming suspicion that the film was cut to shreds during post-production. Characters appear and disappear at random, sometimes never to return, while even Joanna's profession and the reasons for why she stays in La Salle after her work is done are never made evident. Meanwhile, plot threads adding to the core mysteryi.e. the barn and the muralare promptly forgotten about at the end, and character motivations are consistently muddy. Without giving anything away, why does Terry board up the house in the third act, for example, and how can he possibly know crucial details about Joanna's past at the end? The final scenes, meant to be quietly poetic, only serve to flabbergast patient viewers who have waited for all the pieces to come together, but never do.
Sarah Michelle Gellar's committed and persuasive performance as Joanna is the glue that holds much of the film together. This is a fairly juicy roleGellar is front and center at all times, and creates a character worth caring aboutbut something tells me that a lot of the nuances of both her and the story were chopped out by studio tinkering. As Terry, Joanna's sort-of love interest and the one person she feels safe turning to for help, Terry O'Brien is an unconventional casting choice, but the right one. O'Brien and Gellar share a palpably charged chemistry, and the movie is at its best when these two are together. In a supporting part that should have been expanded upon, Sam Shepard (2005's "Stealth
") plays Joanna's estranged father, Ed.
A director's cut of "The Return" would be something to see, especially if it ironed out the many problems already discussed. When the film works, it works well, but this theatrical version is hopelessly convoluted and vague, featuring glaring plot holes so enormous that one could fit the whole state of Texas itself in them. Because it is in the editing room where the picture probably fell apart, first-time screenwriter Adam Sussman should be cut some slack. There is a promise underneath the surface and in individual moments that suggests "The Return" began production in far better shape than the inscrutable hodgepodge that has found its way to the big screen.