Dir: Asif Kapadia. US. 2006. 85mins.
UK film-maker Asif Kapadia confirms the sharp directorial authority hedisplayed in The Warrior with The Return,a disarming and visually arresting work about a woman imperilled by herunsolved link to a murder 15 years earlier. Unfortunately, his craftsmanship isultimately stranded by a story that lacks the necessary characterisation,tension and revelation.
Despite its shortcomings,this Rogue Pictures release deserved better treatment than a much-delayedopening in the US at the weekend where, without press screenings and muchmarketing, it posted less than $5m. As such it is likely to close quickly, withbest returns from home video markets.
Internationally, strongesthopes lie with markets where its star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, still hassomething of a fanbase from her Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series.
Joanna Mills (Gellar) is anambitious company sales rep whose professional acumen is obviously emotionalcompensation for a traumatic childhood incident involving her father (Shepard).As a result she is drawn to the solitary loneliness of the open road ("IfI keep moving forward, nothing bad can catch me"), constantly heading off onbusiness.
On a trip to her nativeTexas, Joanna finds herself inextricably drawn to a strange deserted towncalled La Salle. Though she has no physical memory of being there before, shesuffers from flashbacks, hallucinations and nightmares that trigger visions ofher own breakdown and acts of self-mutilation.
Saved from an apparentlysexual attack at the hands of an obnoxious colleague (Scott), Joanna is insteaddrawn to a mysterious stranger, Terry (O'Brien) whose own personal tragedy isclearly intertwined with a disturbing childhood incident.
With The Return Asif Kapadia has clearly made an art horrormovie in the vein of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, concentrating on internalisedrather than visceral horror. It works best in its opening half, creatinga powerful and disturbing sense of entrapment and breakdown, juxtaposing mirrorshots and reflections with malevolent use of Patsy Cline's Sweet Dreams (Of You).
But it loses much of itssense of mystery and horror when the dual timeframes -past, which covers thetragic murder, and the present, which unlocks Joanna's memories of tragedy - converge.There are also signs of too much snipping in the editing suite: several of thecharacters feel over-truncated from a much larger work.
The movie has some eyecatching moments, especially a sharply edited and photographed car crash into aditch. The town appears to be a remnant from Peter Bogdanovich'sThe Last Picture Show, a world ofempty hotels and hillbilly bars that becomes a violent internal projection ofmadness and the inexplicable.
But rather than be revelatory,The Return's conclusion feels whollyunenlightening. At its best it is lean and atmospheric - but at the moment whenit needs an imaginative leap, it settles for the perfunctory and familiar.
Sarah Michelle Gellar andPeter O'Brien, the only two actors given anything substantial to work with, arephysically well matched against each other and inform their roles with areticence and low-key vulnerability. Sam Shepard and Kate Beahanhave throwaway parts; as the scorned lover, Adam Scott is particularlyobnoxious and unlikeable.
Marc D Evans
Sarah Michelle Gellar