2006Director: Asif Kapadia
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, J.C. MacKenzie, Sam Shepard
hat, exactly, is Sarah Michelle Gellar trying to prove? The "Buffy" faithful have long touted the actress as the preeminent haunted starlet of her era, but not since she played a jail-bait Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Cruel Intentions has she attempted a major movie where she wasn’t at the opposite end of a knife.
The Return certainly isn’t going to help things. It’s been sold hastily to the teen-horror crowd with desperate taglines like “the past never dies, it kills.” Yet as one of precisely eight people who have actually seen the movie (Gellar’s second in as many months that wasn’t screened for press), I can tell you that it is, in fact, not a horror film. It’s a quaint, mildly unnerving supernatural drama, whose paranormal aspects were trumped up by a resigned studio searching for the best way to sell a scattershot movie.
Of course, the studio isn’t entirely to blame—even director Asif Kapadia (in his first American feature) seems unsure of where he wants to take the film. One minute the camera is accosting its doe-eyed star to a soundtrack of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” the next it’s lingering on some familial melodrama that seems to exist solely for its own sake. Its sporadic thriller elements are as good as any to single out, really—the film certainly never settles on a lone narrative front.
But while the movie isn’t especially good, Gellar surprisingly turns in a quieter, more reserved effort, echoing the faint promise evident in rookie screenwriter Adam Sussman’s script. The plot, unfolding in flashbacks and their disjointed present-day parallels, concerns Joanna (Gellar), a woman who hears voices and is pursued by a deviant auto-garage type who calls her “sunshine.” She’s a career saleswoman, which provides the film with a convenient excuse to send her on the road to Texas, where all the hazy freak-outs began.
In short order we have a car crash, an attempted rape, a healthy dose of self-mutilation, and a mysterious man (J.C. MacKenzie) who seems to always pop up at the wrong moment. Hmm. The voice Joanna hears wouldn’t have anything to do this old lover the man keeps mentioning, the one who creepily resembles her, would it? I wouldn’t dare, but after a few more near-death experiences and a little faux-eerie Pasty Cline on loop, the puzzle (which you may accidentally solve in the first 15 minutes) comes together, albeit with one or two missing pieces.
The Return doesn’t work, which will come as a surprise to no one, but the real frustration here is Gellar. The confidence she inspired on "Buffy" is quickly slipping from memory, and it’s only a matter of time before that generation of fans moves on. The vixen and victim archetypes have served her well over the years—but we all have to grow up sometime.
The Return is currently playing in wide release.