Looking in the mirror can be a dangerous act, especially when the person looking back isn't recognizable. What happens if more than one person peers back through the same eyes in the reflection? Asif Kapadia's supernatural thriller The Return tries to answer such a question. Multiple spirit embodiments and the looming mystery of a tumultuous evening from the past adorn this latest entry into the mind-bending genre. All the cinematic fragments lock together, from the serviceable performances to the grandiose visual style that's as rich with distinction as it is lacking in color saturation. Where The Return fails to deliver is in a coherent link between the supernatural and tangible worlds, thus leaving an assumed resolution in the dark. Though looming in an irresolute fog, the chills and gritty tension of this bizarre mystery still deliver a fairly gripping tale.
Joanna (Sarah Michelle Gellar) just wants to sell.
She is a mid-twenties freight consultant who subconsciously uses her petite, youthful feminism to seal the deal. Her simple life, seeming like an arrangement of profession and seclusion used for escape, hasn't included her home state of Texas for quite some time. A tip leaked through the cracks for a heavy freight trafficker that calls for Joanna to trek back to her hometown. Fighting both with this decision to go back and with her aggressively enamored colleague who also desires the sale, Joanna hops in her pick-up truck and makes the return from whence she came.
Driving from city to city can cause odd disturbances and fatigue. What Joanna begins to suffer from is an extreme case that must be caused by more than just road exhaustion. Radio stations play nothing but a solitary song, echoing as if through a tin can from the past. That night, as she indulges in a night out with a friend after her conference with the sales lead, she begins to have obscure visions of an event that she never remembers. Amidst such vision, Joanna catches a glimpse of a maroon bar, spilling beer bottles, and the grizzly, brutal murder of a young woman. After a terrible night filled with such stark visions, Joanna begins to seek out the remote location to discover exactly what looms within her head and body.
All this starts to piece together a materializing solution within The Return. Each puzzle fragment holds some connection to the reason Joanna is compellingly lured to this unfamiliar, remote location. This obscure locale doesn't provide a hospitably warm environment either, from the dusty, broken hotel room in La Salle to the threatening, ominous guy who lends Joanna a hand that evening. Even glancing in the mirror proves mysteriously dangerous for Joanna's visionary confusion. A mystical quality surrounds these turn of events that are inexplicable by any of this world's disenchanting excuses. Why does she remember a bar in a town she's never visited?
Capably performed by supernatural veteran Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joanna tries to maintain her simple, controlled persona while this oddness begins to unravel. She undeniably lends her trust to nobody, not even her father and childhood friend. Though plain in nature from first glance, it's obvious that a dark, brooding secret looms, stirs, and prepares to escape early in The Return.
Visually, this film's unsaturated, crisp palette maintains a strikingly intent and vacant impression. Such a cold, dark presentation is enough to make wispy small industrial towns and farmhouses quite menacing. Ultimately, however, it's this vacant sensation about the film that leaves empathy for the protagonist whirling in the wind. Vacancy is a strange sensation to be left with, especially considering the ethereally filled nature of Joanna's struggle.
While spilling from the crest with atmosphere, The Return drains all of this bubbling paranormal tension with an inconclusive, erratic climax. In theory, each thematic piece comes together with an adequate twist in the mix. However, the execution and delivery of the finale fails to hammer down the nails into a closed coffin. Interpretation abound, wrapping up this film will reveal an ending that might cause a bit of perplexity and spark a thought or two, but will ultimately lack the vested energy to complete the resolution full circle. Though dreadfully harsh and lacking a weighty punch at the finish line, The Return still serves up an eerie, supernatural trip adorned with an assortment of chills, tension, and discomfort alike.
Universal has packaged The Return in a single-disc keepcase with exquisitely designed coverart. The inner packaging, however, is dreadfully barren in presentation with a lack of any real disc art and accompanied only by an advertisement insert.
Stylish, eerie films rely partly upon visual enchantment to engross the viewer. The Return's visual transfer undoubtedly delivers such an experience. Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, the quality is quite stellar. The desaturated, cold palette retains a chilly weight throughout the film with a prominent presentation. Black levels seemed to fluctuate here and there with a bit of grain, though negigibly. While maintaining a distinctively grainy and gritty personality, the detail and sharpness apparent were mighty eye-catching.
Paired up with the video quality, The Return comes equipped with a highly executed Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Each channel in the mix is exercised to a hearty degree. The surround channels received a moderate workout for ambient sounds, while the bass track hammered an ample push through its commonplace usage. Dialogue remained crisp and audible, though a few scenes were a smidge muffled and difficult to comprehend. Each and every creepy sound effect, however, rattled through the audio presentation well to achieve a quality aural tension. A French 5.1 language track is available as well, along with English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Interesting enough, though the extras are a bit sparse, they provide some quite interesting insight into the film and what might have been on the screen:
The Making of The Return: Creation of a Nightmare takes you onto the set with the characters and crew for a series of interviews. Though not void of the typical boasting of the participants, the insight provided from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Asif Kapadia touched on a cluster of interesting elements. The two delve (though only to a shallow level) into their beliefs on the nature of the film's ending and core values. Many of the remaining cast and crew surface and provide other smidges of serviceable insight.
The Deleted Scenes, labeled as "terror you never saw", are not menacing whatsoever. Instead, the portions and alternate scenes add to bits of character development that seemed clipped to alter the tone of the film.
Lastly, the Alternate Ending is a curious piece. Where the theatrical conclusion has an obscurely inconclusive nature about the resolution, the alternate ending seems to adhere closely to the tone and message of the film. Even considering, as it states, the ending is a bit "too shocking for the big screen", it seems to grip the tone of the film a bit more effectively. Though a few other tweaks and additions in the dialogue would have been necessary to convey the alternate ending, this conclusion seems to be the intended resolution. It's a bit on the strange side, but still compelling and, in a supernatural sense of the phrase, a bit more convincing.
Though lacking much selection of extras, the quality of what is provided serves up an ample portion of after-film delight.
Though this chilling tale isn't especially packed with terror, The Return still crafts a rich, brooding atmosphere with visual panache and melancholy, harsh performances. While high on style and heavy on grittiness, a lack of joy and resolution drags the scraping narrative down a few notches. Even so, Joanna's peculiar story of paranormal incarnation deems The Return an adequate Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site