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.