The Return


Rating 3½

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Written by Adam Sussman

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O'Brien, Adam Scott and Sam Shepard

The numerous reviews and many of the posting board comments made by people suggest that, with ‘The Return’, Sarah Michelle Gellar has made yet another nondescript, pointless, bland, utterly non-scary horror film for “teenage girls who don’t like horror films” (a criticism also directed at ‘The Grudge’ and one that I think displays blatant sexism), and has given another woeful performance in which the nearest she comes to acting is employing her “thousand yard stare”.

This is absolutely true, except in just about every aspect of the interpretation. ‘The Return’ is not a horror film. To give them their due, Rogue Pictures have never described it as such. They called it a “psychological thriller”. However, the marketing clearly tried to link it to ‘The Grudge’, which wasn’t a great idea, although I suspect it didn’t make a lot of difference to the box office performance, which stands at around $10 million.

As to Gellar’s performance, I would describe it as detached and uninvolved. However, it was not intended as a criticism, as I will explain, although I can understand why people who don’t like Gellar or don’t like her acting style might resort to the “thousand yard stare” jibe.

‘The Return’ has clearly been tinkered with, probably at the insistence of the studio following the test screenings. It could well be that they concluded there was a need to make a film that would appeal to the same audience that went to see ‘The Grudge’ - and to Gellar’s fanbase. That being the case, they made a mistake. ‘The Grudge’ was a fluke, the right film at the right moment, but that audience isn’t a constant. To all intents and purposes it doesn’t really exist now (the first film grossed nearly $200 million at the box office, but the sequel levelled out at $65 million). Gellar’s core fanbase more or less will watch anything she is in, but perhaps isn’t anywhere near as big as the box office performance of some of her previous films would suggest.

‘The Return’ does not impress as a “great” film – whether it be something like ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ that immediately dazzled on a surface level because of a great acting partnership between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr, both firing on all cylinders, or ‘Junebug’, thanks to a tremendous and at the time unexpected performance by Amy Adams, or ‘Mulholland Drive’, which might not be to all tastes, but is a certainly a great film.

None of this means that ‘The Return’ does not have any merit, although the vast majority of reviews would suggest it is utterly worthless. Even a vaguely positive review such as the one that appeared in The Guardian Guide described it as, “Artfully done but fairly generic.” The Guardian’s senior film critic Peter Bradshaw, on the other hand, thought the film to be worthless in every way, based, I suspect, on his hatred of new Hollywood horror films and his dismissal of Gellar as an actress utterly devoid of any redeeming qualities.

I’ve watched ‘The Return’ several times now and enjoy it a great deal. That doesn’t really mean very much. I’m entirely biased and even without the presence of Gellar it would still be the kind of film I like. It has its faults. It’s not giving us anything new, if that is deemed to be a fault. A word frequently used in reviews is “generic”. The studio required director Asif Kapadia to dramatically trim down his original version, to the extent that several clips used in the trailer don’t actually appear in the film at all.

I have to admit I am hoping the DVD will carry some deleted scenes that help to give more of a flavour of what Kapadia originally intended, or that there is a “director’s cut”, although I suspect that is extremely unlikely. Having said that, I thought the film worked rather well. It’s very compact and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Gellar’s character Joanna Mills is in virtually every single scene, which isn’t exactly a hardship from my point of view. This character aside, the others are sketchy at best and some come and go in no more than one or two brief scenes that perhaps leave little more than the very vaguest impression of their purpose, always to provide us with more information about Joanna. In that respect, it certainly isn’t a great character study. There isn’t a huge amount of dialogue.

We learn that Joanna is, to all intents and purposes, estranged from her father (played by Sam Shepard, who is certainly underused, although his presence adds a little bit of gravitas to the film). They are clearly uncomfortable around each other and don’t communicate well. We also learn that Joanna had apparently been in an abusive relationship, and it is suggested she was a willing participant at one time, although it’s somewhat underdeveloped and vague. There is a lot of that in the film and perhaps it is intentional, allowing us to pull together unfocused snippets of clues to form an impression of this character as the mystery slowly unravels. It’s probably not entirely successful, but that might be a consequence of the cuts.

Gellar’s performance here is very much in keeping with the performances she gave in late ‘Buffy’ and in ‘The Grudge’. Joanna shares with Buffy and Karen a detachment from the world around her, a sense of not belonging, which she projects almost as a kind of melancholia. Gellar portrays the detachment by stripping everything back and giving a perfomances that suggests she is not involved in what is happening around her. I think it works very well. Obviously, a lot people would disagree with that.

Joanna cuts herself – there is a specific reason for this within the context of the storyline, although it’s not one she knows herself. At first we see a nearly healed cut on her upper leg, with no reference to how she got it. Later on, she wakes up in a barren field in a wintery rural Texas landscape and the cut has been re-opened. It is clear that she has lost time, several hours it appears. Finally, we do see her cut herself, apparently while she is hallucinating. I already knew about this aspect of Joanna’s personality. I’d seen some stills and I’d read an interview with Gellar in which she said it was one of the things that first drew her to the character, because she saw it as a challenge to portray.

I didn’t give it much thought, but I suppose I expected something intense and violent. Instead, Gellar plays it with a kind of detached disinterest. She’s got a knife and she cuts herself in a decidedly non-aggressive way (although the act itself always has a degree of aggression to it, the desire to self-harm) and seemingly she’s virtually unaware that she’s doing it. The first time I watched the film I was inclined to think that just maybe she could have been a bit more animated about it. The second time I felt differently, concluding that Gellar approached this in exactly the right way for the character she was playing. Quite frankly, I have no idea how people go about cutting themselves and what prompts it, but I’m sure it is not all about extreme and aggressive Ricky Edwards-style “4-Real” statements made for the benefit of idiot music critics.

Perhaps Gellar’s detached under-stated performance doesn’t quite allow her to project the fact that Joanna is seriously screwed up. She deliberately takes a job that puts her constantly on the road, meaning that she never has to face up to the need to settle down somewhere and make some kind of stable life for herself. As I’ve already mentioned, it would seem that she had been in a relationship in which she allowed herself to be physically abused. She routinely cuts herself. Her relationship with her father, who is apparently her only family member, is non-existent. A more animated performance would have brought a different dynamic to the character, but the juxtaposition between this person who detaches herself from everything around her and is effectively always running away and the same person who becomes obsessed with solving a mystery that she barely even knows how to make sense of is interesting.

The one scene in which Gellar didn’t entirely convince me was when she was making a hard sell to a particularly difficult and hard-nosed potential client on behalf of the trucking company she works for. It wasn’t so much the performance, just the ease with which she was apparently able to convince him - she neither “looked” nor “sounded” the part.

Visually the film looks great. I think Gellar carries it very well, without giving a really meaty performance that demands attention. Although she is supposed to have grown up in Texas and is now based out of St Louis she makes no attempt at a Texan accent, which I personally think is by far the best approach unless you really can pull off the accent. The numerous American actors who seem intent on subjecting us to an Oirish accent at least once in the career might want to take note.

The acting is absolutely fine throughout. As I’ve mentioned, there is perhaps a sense that Sam Shepard is underused. The Australian actor Peter O’Brien, in his first American film, gives a perfectly decent performance in a role that doesn’t give him much to work with. He looks great, in a grizzled handsome-ugly way.

The closing scene is nicely low-key, harking back to 70’s American cinema and films like ‘The Long Goodbye’, although it perhaps doesn’t warrant too much deliberation. A part of me cannot escape the thought that it’s potentially just a little bit icky.


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