Contrary to Tom Wolfe’s maxim, you can go home again, but it might not be the most pleasant experience. That would seem to be the message of “The Return,” a spiffy, satisfyingly old-fashioned thriller with supernatural overtones that hangs together and, at barely eighty minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Eschewing the graphic violence that characterizes most of today’s sadistic examples if splatter horror, it opts for atmosphere and suspense instead, and is all the better for it. It’s more in the mold of an underrated ghost story like “Stir of Echoes” (1999) than blood-soaked stuff like “Saw” and “Hostel.”
The script by Adam Sussman, which actually makes sense on its own terms, centers on Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a St. Louis-based saleswoman who spends most of her time on the road and has studiously avoided visiting her home town in Texas, where her father (Sam Shepard) still lives but that has mysterious bad memories for her. But she returns to call on a prospective client, only to be beset by visions of what appear to be a car accident, a sexual assault, and a murder; she’s also troubled by a stalker in overalls who may or may not be real. Eventually she’s saved from a rapist by Terry Stahl (Peter O’Brien), a local man who’s long been suspected of killing his wife Annie (Erinn Allison) years earlier. Of course Joanna’s visions are connected with Annie’s death, and ultimately lead to the unraveling of the old crime and to revelations about why Joanna is so intimately connected to the spirit of the dead woman.
There are stumbles as “The Return” proceeds along its way. One is the character of Kurt Setzer (Adam Scott), a colleague of Joanna’s who suddenly shows up in Texas and attacks her, but whose motives are at best obscure. And toward the close of the picture a flashback occurs in which a car which should have a Texas license plate prominently displays a Kansas one instead. But overall the picture is well constructed and well made. Though her role forces Gellar to mope around a lot, she handles the task nicely (having earned the technique from Buffy, of course), and O’Brien makes a stalwart hero who suffers stoically without falling into dullness. The rest of the cast, including Shepard, fulfill their assignments professionally, with J.C. MacKenzie and Darrian McClanahan (as the young Joanna) standing out. But it’s mostly Sussman’s astute script and Asif Kapadia’s able direction that makes the film work as well as it does. And though “The Return” might once have been just the stuff of an episode in a television anthology series, or a TV movie of the week, Roman Osin’s moody widescreen cinematography lends an elegance to it that’s beyond what the tube could have done. Dario Marianelli’s atmospheric score is also a plus.
Made on a modest budget, compact, and chilling without being repulsive, “The Return” is a throwback, but a nice one–a solid B movie in every respect, down to the grade assigned it here.