I have now seen The Return twice, taken copious pages of notes on the second go-round, and yet I feel scarcely prepared to write about this film. I’m afraid that whatever words I might scrape together can’t do justice to what the actors, the director, and the crew have achieved. The Return is partially about how we deceive ourselves, how we conceive the “truth” of a matter, only later to view the same situation in another, quite altering light. It’s about how perception plays tricks, how our fears cheat and diminish our lives.
The sparse story line goes as follows: two brothers, aged about 13 and 15, who have been reared by their mother and grandmother, are suddenly visited by their father, who had disappeared when they were toddlers. This taciturn, gruff stranger offers no explanation either for vanishing or resurfacing; he takes his sons on a camping trip, during which his militaristic approach to discipline alienates the younger brother. Suspicions rise, a tragedy occurs, and in the aftermath, evidence confronts the survivors that perhaps all was not as it seemed.
None of this conveys the visual richness of the movie. The Return opens with a stunning shot of a lake surface—the undulating waves and shadows engulf the entire frame, beckoning us into their depths—and first-time director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s compositions are as mesmeric as they are masterly. He and cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman accomplish wonders using frames within frames and a limited color palette. Kritchman applies multiple hues of blue in capturing water and sky (the film takes place in a cloud-encapsulated corner of Russia that strongly echoes the Pacific Northwest); in one remarkable moment on the beach at dusk, even the sand is blue. Red and orange figure sparingly. There’s a brief close-up of two fish, their mouths pumping for air, trapped within a plastic bag that reflects the glow of a campfire—an astute visual cue for mortal danger.
Early on, when the father returns and lies sleeping in the mother’s bed, the younger brother, Vanya, rushes to the place where he and his older sibling Andrei keep the lone photograph of their long-absent papa. It’s wedged within the pages of a picture book, and as Vanya flips through them, we glimpse some of these fantastical illustrations of wizards and mythological creatures. That’s the realm their daddy belongs to, and disabusing this notion soon takes center stage. Later, there are two impressive sequences sans dialogue. In one, the father takes the boys to a dock, letting them run free while he conducts some sort of unspecified business (we see money change hands). Vanya surveys the harbor, the laborers, and the seagulls through binoculars, and at times, his brother, too—Andrei circles the same ground, camera in hand. In the other, they lounge in a diner booth after a particularly joyless meal: Andrei, who is thrilled by the father’s presence, gnaws on a toothpick in that baby-macho way 15-year-old boys try to emulate men; Vanya, who resents this new authority figure, pouts, his thin lips puckered downward. The two boys who play Andrei and Vanya (Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov) really do create a sense on-screen of seeming like brothers, and in this bit they resemble a fussy old married couple, too.
The Return works as both a suspense thriller and as a meditation on masculinity. Reserved, conformist Andrei, with the long eyelashes, is the boy-child; the emotional, outspoken, physically smaller Vanya is the girl-child. Vanya can talk the talk, and after a time, he insists on carrying their father’s knife around. That it comes as no surprise when Vanya cannot bring himself to use the knife at a climactic moment makes the confrontation (and the recognition within it) no less devastating. I admired Vanya, left rain-soaked and abandoned in one scene, for speaking his mind; I cringed for him in his later show of impotence. The father (Konstantin Lavronenko) is “all man” in an almost cardboard way. As their road trip begins, he swigs down the contents of a flask. “Drinking behind the wheel?” Andrei chastises mildly. “Yes. Want some?” the father replies. Andrei’s concerned expression diffuses into a sly smile. With that smile, you can tell how turned on he is, how he can’t help but be pleased to have such a virile dad, an adolescent boy’s idealized wet dream of a father. Andrei, who accepts the daredevil challenges of other boys in their seaside village, clearly longs for a masculine role model. He exclaims, shortly after the father first materializes, “He’s huge! He must workout.” We’re shown, on the other hand, a frightened, disconsolate Vanya who can only be comforted by his mother. As the film closes, we see a montage of snapshots, including one of the father as a much younger man, looking every inch a scared boy.
There’s a scene near the beginning that suggests homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Her younger child stranded on top of a tower overlooking the sea, the mother ascends the innumerable steps to rescue him. He’s trembling too much either to jump or climb the ladder. We wonder how the mother will get the child down from there, and the scene cuts, without depicting their descent, to an image of Vanya walking safe and sound, apparently a day later. Hitchcock placed James Stewart dangling from a precipitous height as well, with the tantalizing omission of how a man so paralyzed with fear ever returned to solid ground.
The actors are outstanding. Dobronravov turns in the greatest performance I’ve ever seen from a child actor; indeed, he surpasses the accomplishments of most adults. He and Garin share a natural, instinctive rapport, whether they are fighting, clowning around, or trying to make sense of their father’s behavior. Both actors use their faces and eyes expressively in creating realistic emotions. These are astonishingly mature debuts, which makes it all the more painful to learn that Garin, aged 15, died in a swimming accident in July 2003, a few months following The Return’s completion. We are lucky to have his performance on film. How cruel that we should be denied watching this young man grow as an artist. – NPT
April 4, 2004