Boys, Boats, & Bloody Noses  

The Rugged Mystery of The Return

The Return

dir. Zvyagintsev

Opens Fri June 4

Cinema 21

The Return is both beautiful and bewildering. Set in rural Russia, its unique premise is of a father reuniting with his two sons after 12 years. The catch is that nobody says where he was or why he came back, only that the boys had better pack their bags, because Daddy's taking them on a trip. Though nothing is explained, it can't be good, because everyone is incredibly tense and listless. (And a depressing bedroom scene reveals that Mom and Dad are not making up for lost time.)

As the film continues, the confusion continues. Are they being abducted? Is Daddy a good man or a bad man? Filmed from the perspective of the boys, particularly the younger one, Ivan, this cinematic effect mirrors the paranoia and confusion of the boys themselves, faced with such strange and emotional circumstances. There are many, many emotional outbursts in this film, from temper tantrums and childish stubbornness to screaming, crying, and lots of hitting.

The mystery of Dad is expressed in the differing reactions of the boys. Andrey, the eldest teenager, quickly idolizes and imitates his father, accepting even his violence as profound paternal guidance. Ivan, meanwhile, resists his father totally, even questioning his identity as such and refusing to cooperate with Dad's tough love parenting.

Almost all of the film takes place on an odyssey of camping and fishing in the wilderness, and in the car. It's a coming-of-age drama for the rugged sportsman, with lots of expansive, gorgeous shots of the landscape and flopping, dying fish. The film is extremely well crafted and teeming with symbolism and allegory. It's dense, and the inability to decipher what that density actually consists of keeps it engaging.

Like the moods of the characters, The Return is erratic, going from absolute serenity to jarring, startling action. The development of the characters is rapid and clear, and the acting is superb. But the film's best trick is in its originality, completely dodging cliché and traditional storytelling. Like leaving out the "telling" part, and leaving the audience a small, beautifully rendered piece of a grander story.

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