Film

The Return (2006)

Joanna's restlessness is pathological and symptomatic. "Sometimes," she says, "I think that if I keep moving forward, nothing bad will happen to me."


The Return

Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kate Beahan, Peter O Brien, Adam Scott, Sam Shepard
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Rogue Pictures (Focus)
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-11-10 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Little Joanna (Darrian McClanahan) has her dad Ed (Sam Shepard) pretty freaked out at the start of The Return. Her dad takes her to a fair, where he buys her a hot dog and invites her to have fun on the rides. But this 10-year-old isn't having fun. She's afraid, small, suitably pale and dark-eyed. While her father is unable to help her, can only wonder at her erratic behavior and abject vulnerability, the film grants you access into Joanna's mind: you see the odious booted feet she sees, you hear the soft voice calling her "Sunshine," a voice telling her not to be scared, but meaning that she's right to be scared, absolutely.

This opening sequence sets up the film's so-called "supernatural" theme: the girl is haunted by something ooky, something her dad can't see but that causes her to hide herself under a table on the fairground, and emerge with a cut on her thigh, apparently self-inflicted. The rest of The Return follows Joanna's efforts to discover the source of her fears and nightmares. An imminent Last Girl, Joanna's story is eventually one of transformation and revenge. It helps that Joanna grows up to be Sarah Michelle Gellar. Though her thin dark hair and gaunt-girl makeup emphasize that she's troubled by her visions through her young adulthood, at least she has the Gellarness. You know she'll suss it out.

The problem is the mystery she does figure out: it's grim and dark, but it's excessively familiar, with a dead woman at its center. That makes Joanna's suffering resonant, in the sense that her deciphering and resolution signify a kind of individual answer for women's collective abuse by men -- in this case, a remorseless, brutal, uneducated, rural-dwelling Neanderthal stereotype -- but that doesn't quite make the story new. Buffy, after all, fought back for seven seasons.

The plot problem is major (especially the literal-minded explanation of Joanna's connection to the dead woman revealed at film's end), but even with that, The Return works hard to make something new of its conventional foundation. While you'll figure out Joanna's mystery long before she does, you may find some solace in its look and structure, which are excellent -- moody, impressionistic, relentlessly dissonant. Directed by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia (he made The Warrior in 2001, which also considers the cultural imperative and utter pain of revenge, in feudal India), the movie breaks up Joanna's experience into fragments that can't cohere, but form as a kind of abstract history of abused women as a social norm. The incoherence is part of the point, informed by the many silences, the many blindness that attend such abuse, that allow it to go on.

In other words, The Return isn't the horror movie its trailers suggest, but it's also easy to see how its lack of category make it difficult to market (thus the fall back on what's familiar: Gellar, ghosts, The Grudge). Joanna isn't the usual curious horror movie victim. She first appears at work: she's a salesperson for a St. Louis-based trucking company, always on the road and living out of hotel rooms. Her friend from back in Texas, Michelle (Kate Beahan), worries about her, and indeed, Joanna is looking rather grim. Her restlessness is pathological and symptomatic. "Sometimes," she says, "I think that if I keep moving forward, nothing bad will happen to me."

Her intuition is both right and wrong. Disturbed by visions in her mirror (of a dark-haired, pale woman who isn't her) as well as by an apparent hallucination that has her carrying a switchblade that she uses expertly to cut her self, Joanna pursues the location she's seen in a couple of dreams, a bar in small town Texas. Here she finds a man named Terry (Peter O’Brien), also obviously haunted, but gallant enough to rescue her when her own ex-boyfriend/co-worker/stalker Kurt (Adam Scott) arrives in town and tries to rape her. Kurt's part is small and silly, but underscores the point about clueless and abusive men, the other primary offender being her father, who complains that when she turned scary, "I couldn't control you." When Joanna accuses him of not understanding the problem at all ("control" was not the issue; he should have been trying to help her), the film pretty much lays out its hand. But that doesn't mean Joanna doesn't have to go through some harrowing violence anyway.

This violence both defines and destroys her relationship with Terry, whose own trauma intersects with Joanna's via the "supernatural" theme. Not only does Terry stop Kurt's assault, he also follows him into the street and beats him nearly senseless. Watching from her hotel room window, Joanna is intrigued: this is the sort of release she can't achieve.

The movie shifts back and forth, with Joanna positioned as spectator and agent in her own story, unable to depend on any man even though she's surrounded by them. Something like a tone poem, The Return is ambitious, if not always successful. It is also often gorgeous, full of unexpected images. The palette is blue and gray, the framing skewed, mobile, and often strange, with rundown trucks, badly lit bars, and dusty landscapes providing correlatives for Joanna's internal state. Her journey doesn't end well, but the movie maintains focus on the unsettling, lonely work of recovery from trauma. That work, The Return acknowledges, is never over.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.