Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watch This: The Return

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Return (2003)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

A group of Russian boys take turns jumping into the water off of a seaside observation tower.  Anyone who takes the ladder down is a "cowardly pig," according to the first boy in the water.  Each takes his turn until the last boy left atop the tower is Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), who, despite encouragement from his older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), is frozen in place by fear.  Ivan remains there, alone and shivering in his underpants, until his mother comes to get him.  The next day, Ivan catches up with the other boys playing soccer in an abandoned building.  They ignore him, Andrei calls Ivan a coward, and the two brothers begin to scuffle, leading to a foot chase back home.  When they arrive, sweat-soaked, out of breath, and shouting, their mother admonishes them to be quiet because their father is inside sleeping.

"Who? Who's sleeping?" replies Ivan, acting as though he didn't hear her correctly.  The accusations of cowardice and the ensuing foot chase are immediately forgotten, as the boys move quietly into the house to verify their father's presence.

These are the powerful opening scenes to The Return, and although the events at the tower are seemingly out of mind at the moment, they will have a lingering impact over the remainder of the film.  The father (played by Konstantin Lavronenko) has suddenly reappeared after an absence of twelve years.  The boys have no firsthand recollection of him, knowing him only through a single photograph kept in a trunk in the attic.  At dinner that evening, the boys are curious but hesitant, and the father shows no particular warmth.  Plans are made for a father-son fishing trip, and they leave early the next morning.

From the very start, the father is gruff and authoritative, and the two boys react differently to his taciturn manner.  Andrei, starved for attention from a father figure, looks up to him and actively seeks his approval.  Ivan, in contrast, is wary and distances himself, showing defiance at nearly every opportunity.  He senses something dangerous about this man, and his wariness seems justified as the father engages in suspicious behavior.  He remains vague about their destination, saying he has "business" there, and when they stop at a remote seaside pier, he exchanges money for a wrapped bundle tied up with rope.  When they arrive two days later at a beach, we discover that the bundle is in fact a boat motor, which they use to propel an old rowboat across the water to a stark, uninhabited island.  The motor stops working halfway there, and the father makes the two boys row the rest of the way.  The island, it turns out, has a dilapidated wood observation tower, and film's portentous opening scene gains renewed significance.  The tension mounts slowly as the battle of wills between father and son comes to a head, leading to a tragic, but perhaps inevitable, conclusion.

One of the things that makes The Return such a stunning film is that it works so successfully on a number of different levels.  Not only is it a powerfully resonant father-son relationship drama, it is also an engaging road movie and a haunting psychological thriller.  Some critics have even noted the film's elements of religious allegory and Russian mythology.  Indeed, there is certainly a mythological or allegorical feeling to the film, as though everything that happens has a broader meaning.  The film's director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has remained decidedly hush-hush about the film's meaning, wisely leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the film for him/herself.

Some viewers may be frustrated by the film's unanswered questions, in particular the contents of a metal box the father digs up on the island, but that only lends the character of the father, and the film as a whole, an even greater sense of allegorical import.  The character of the father presents a beguiling mystery.  We know nothing about him (he is never named, and is only credited as "Father"), and his vague and evasive answers to his sons' questions lead only to speculation about his past and his motivations for taking the boys on this trip and treating them so harshly.  We are, almost by default, left to share a point of view with the two boys, as we know just as little about their father as they do.

The Return marked the directorial debut of Andrey Zvyagintsev, and it is certainly one of the most assured first features of the new century.  Zvyagintsev has not disappointed with his subsequent directorial efforts, which have included this year's Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Leviathan.  Zvyagintsev's prior background had been in the theater, and he proves very adept at working with his actors, eliciting standout performances from all three of the film's key cast members.  The actors playing the two sons show an astonishing range of emotions, and Lavronenko's inscrutable performance as the father is equally impressive.  The film is also notable for Mikhail Krichman's striking cinematography, with its muted color palette dominated by grays, blues, and subdued earth tones.  Even in sunshine, everything has a leeched quality.

Compelling, unsettling, and deeply resonant, The Return is a richly rewarding film worth checking out.

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