Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Natalia Vdovina
Where has he been? Why is he back? Why now? What is he up to? What does he want? Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return raises these questions not to answer them, but to create a mood of deep unease and to allow the viewer to burrow into the mindset of the two adolescent protagonists. Like those two kids, you never know quite where you stand in The Return, whether you're watching a man who is genuinely trying to connect with his children but just doesn't know how to relate to them and pushes them further away with his strange behavior, or whether his purpose is more nefarious and his intention is that he will be the only one to return from the trio's camping trip to a remote region. The result is an absolutely spellbinding film that keeps you guessing (and second guessing) right up until the end.
The Return opens with brothers Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and their friends standing on a high platform preparing to jump into the sea below. While everyone else goes without a second thought, Ivan is deathly afraid of heights and can't bring himself to follow - though his pride prevents him from climbing down, knowing that the other boys will call him a coward if he does so. The other boys, including Andrei, quickly tire of waiting for him and leave him behind and some time later Ivan and Andrei's mother (Natalia Vdovina) comes to retrieve him, promising that it will be their secret that he climbed down the ladder. That promise is easier made than kept, however, as Andrei quickly throws Ivan under the bus, driving a rift between the brothers which is quickly forgotten about when they get home and their mother tells them that their father, who has been absent for 12 years, is back. The boys creep into the room where their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) is sleeping and then go looking for a photograph in order to confirm that it's really him, and while Andrei is excited by his return, Ivan is far more apprehensive. When the father wakes up, the family sits down to an awkward dinner during which he asserts his authority as man of the house he hasn't set foot in in over a decade, throwing off the natural balance that has developed since he's been gone. During the dinner it is decided that the father will take the sons on a camping trip and in the morning the three set off.
Almost immediately, things begin to go sideways between the father and the sons. While Andrei is eager to please, Ivan is seething with resentment and consistently challenges their father, whose reactions to the boys' behavior ranges from harsh to bizarre. Among his punishments are kicking Ivan out of the car and leaving him by the side of the road for what appears to be several hours, during which Ivan is left to the mercy of the elements during a rain storm before the father finally returns for him. At one point the father makes a phone call and then announces to the boys that the trip is off and that they'll have to take a bus back to their mother, resulting in an angry scene with Ivan, who asks if they'll see him again in another 12 years. The boys make it onto the bus but the father has an abrupt change of heart and the three set off again, finally making it out to a campground in the woods where Ivan begins to believe that the man isn't really their father at all and may kill them. Andrei insists that he's being paranoid, but the father's behavior continues to confound Ivan, particularly after he insists that they pack up their camp and move on, eventually getting a boat and heading off to an island which appears to be uninhabited. As the relationship between Ivan and the father continues to break down, and both boys find themselves increasingly challenged by the father's emotional brutality, the father's true motives for the trip begin to come into relief when he goes across the island on his own in order to dig up and retrieve something that's been buried and kept in a metal box. However, just as a light begins to shine on the story's secrets, it's suddenly extinguished by the swift and intense turn of events which occurs between the father and sons.
From a narrative perspective, The Return is a film which could (and I imagine does) easily frustrate some viewers. The story raises a ton of questions that are never answered, and throws in a subplot that in a standard film would provide the narrative with structure, but here turns out to be a MacGuffin. However, to my mind this actually enhances the film in that it recreates for the viewer the psychological position of a child who experiences a parent dropping out of their life and then suddenly reappearing. If a parent is absent, a kid might come up with stories to justify that absence to themselves and convince themselves that the parent wants to be there but can't - dad's a secret agent, for example - and to me that's what this story is all about, Andrei and Ivan trying to explain to themselves where their father has been and to come up with a story that can be reconciled to what they're feeling. Things in the story don't feel like they "stick" or feel like they're constantly shifting, because the boys' feelings are constantly shifting. In particular, Ivan's confusion and mixed emotions express themselves as terror and paranoia, and so his mind goes to the darkest possible explanations. Though we see the father digging up the metal box, I think it's entirely possible that, the story being told from Ivan's perspective, this is something that he imagines has happened as a means of protecting himself. If he believes that the father was up to something and that his intentions were dangerous, then it makes the tragic event of the finale easier for him to take.
That's just a thought, of course, and it could be that what happens in the film is just what happens and how it happens, the purpose of which I think is the same either way, meaning that it's to leave the viewer feeling as unsettled as the two boys. It's an effective strategy that makes The Return feel rather haunting, like a mystery that can never be solved. Though The Return is Zvyagintsev's feature debut (his latest film Leviathan just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film), you wouldn't know it from how confidently it unfolds or how tight and tense his direction is. The success of the film is aided by how skilled the performances from Garin (who died tragically just weeks after the film finished filming) and Dobronravov (who has not only an incredibly expressive face, but one of those faces that already looks at 14 pretty much exactly the way it will look at 24 and 34) are. I've never seen a film quite like The Return and since watching it I find that I can't quite shake it. If nothing else it certainly makes me more determined to find a way to see Leviathan sooner rather than later.