The Return

Rating: * * * * 1/2(out of 5)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Russian with Japanese subtitles
Currently showing
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Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the global corporate culture that’s spread like mold over the past two decades or so is its ideal of uniformity. Consumers are happiest, so we’re told, when they get the same thing everywhere, every time. This is most obvious in the retail sector: a Gap, Starbucks or McDonalds “experience” will be much the same whether you walk in off the street in Beijing, Boston or Beirut.

It’s also true of Hollywood. Most movies these days pack all the surprise of a Big Mac, their story arcs as severely regimented and controlled as the immutable taste of two all-beef patties and “special sauce.” It’s almost impossible not to anticipate where a film’s going after 30 minutes, let alone if you’ve seen the trailer. Surprise, curiosity, the delicious feeling of terra incognita — all these are getting harder to find at the movies these days.

So, sit back and really enjoy the ride as “The Return” takes you on an intensely compelling journey — destination unknown. It drags you deep into a desolate, remote corner of Russia, and teases you with its plot contours.

Two boys, brothers Andrej (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), come home one day to find that their father, absent for 12 years, has suddenly turned up at their home. “Be quiet, Papa’s sleeping,” their mom tells them, and that’s it. Where he was for all those years? What did he do? Why is he back? All these questions remain hanging.

The boys are left wondering, but one thing’s instantly clear: This guy is going to be trouble. As “Papa” (Konstantin Lavronenko, turning in a truly intimidating performance) sits down for his first dinner with his kids after a 12-year separation, there’s barely a greeting, and definitely no hugs or smiles. He just sits down at the table, opens a bottle of wine and glowers. The look in his eyes clearly says, “Don’t ask.”

The next day, he leaves with the boys for a road trip, ostensibly to go fishing, but it seems — especially to suspicious Ivan — that some ulterior motive exists. Their father goes places for no clear reason and meets people in shady encounters. Ivan doubts that this guy is even their real father, while Andrej finds himself readily submitting to this harsh paternal authoritarianism (which is a not-so-subtle political allegory. Stalin, after all, was the nation’s “dear father”).

Lavronenko plays their father as almost a caricature of Russian machismo, smacking his kids upside the head, ogling full-figured women strolling down the street, barking out orders, and constantly drinking. When Andrej sees his father swilling behind the wheel, he asks warily, “Drinking and driving?” To which “Papa” growls, “Want some?”

It’s the sort of iron-fisted parenting that would land you a spell in prison in the States, or at the very least an anger-management class to deal with your “issues,” but there’s also reason to believe that this guy is not all bad. Whatever his own experiences were — and the director encourages us to speculate — it’s clear that he feels men have to be hard, hard and harder still, and that he’s doing his sons a favor by toughening them up. Especially the weaker, whiny Ivan.

Needless to say, Ivan doesn’t appreciate the new regime. The tension between father and son sputters like a fuse nearing the gunpowder, until it all comes to head on a desolate island in Lake Lagoda, near the Finnish border.

“The Return,” which took the Golden Lion at Venice last year, certainly works as suspense; it moves along briskly, obviously guided in some direction, except that we don’t see where it’s going. Actually, we do; director Andrey Zvyagintsev drops us a few clues, but we don’t understand them until the ending comes careening along and blindsides us.

Zvyagintsev’s singular achievement here is to immerse the viewer fully into the perspective of the boys. Like them, all we can do is watch their father closely and try to figure him out. Lavronenko keeps us hanging with a masterful performance, giving us plenty of clues as to what his character’s about, but never spelling out anything for sure.

It’s a mysterious performance at the heart of a mysterious, almost mystical film.

Through his use of remote, unpopulated locations, shrouded in mist and rain, reinforced by a haunting ambient score, Zvyagintsev removes his world from anything specific and evokes a classic tale of father-son conflict. “The Return” may be oblique, but it’s never confusing; emotionally tough, but never cold. Art, but never arty.

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