Andrei Zvyaginstev’s The Return
is an eerie, primal coming of age story. Set in an emotionally cold lakeside in an anonymous Russian town, two brothers, Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobranravov)
engage in the usual brotherly mischief. With Andrey in his middle teens and Ivan trailing him by only a few years the two boys seem about ready for tests of manhood as their activities-challenging each other to feats of bravery and getting into scuffles and races-speak towards their childishness. This test comes when the boys’ father (Konstatin Lavronenko), twelve years absent, mysteriously returns and reenters the lives of the children, who live with their sad, beautiful mother and quiet grandmother. The parents refuse the children’s questions and that evening the father invites the brothers on a vague fishing trip. Using daily titlecards disturbingly reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining
, the new men of the family take off into a grey, cold landscape. The father essentially treats the boys as if he had never left the family; he avoids their questions but scolds and disciplines them as if he had been chastising them for years. He offers little words of affection, incouragement or inquiry, but he gives Andrey, the eldest boy, sips of wine and lets him pay for lunch out of his father’s wallet-gestures that endure the older boy to this mysterious intrusion into the siblings’ childish contests.
Though Ivan’s cowardice was initially proven in the film’s opening
scene when he refuses to jump off a tower in the lake with the other boys, eventually regressing into tears until his mother comes and fetches him, he surprisingly takes a more mature view of his father. His face is clouded with distrust, and unexplained phone calls and “business” pit-stops during the trip turn Ivan’s distrust into suspicion. As they drive farther and farther away from home, the weather seemingly following them and going from merely cold and uncompassionate to intrusive and provoking, the father’s harsh verbal and occasionally physical parenting hardens Ivan’s face, which turns to a disturbing look of malice. Andrey thinks Ivan’s suspicions paranoid and is irritated when his younger brother does not accept his father as he has done. The trip progressively takes on a distinctly mystical feeling, one set and reinforced by Zvyaginstev placing the three men in empty but crisp, beautiful natural locations. Though the trip is not particularly dynamic, by the time the father has the brothers row them onto a distant, empty island in the middle of an anonymous lake The Return
has taken on the mise-en-scene of a survivalist tale, one whose dynamics are subtly determined by the development of the brothers’ feelings toward their father. Is he attempting to rapidly turn them into men, making up for years of neglect with a lightening course in discipline and a mystic nature trip? Or are the boys on their own personal paths, the end destination of which is determined by how
they respond to their new father? Are they suppose to be finding a common ground with the stranger and re-intregrate into a family unit, or is this a test to attain patriarchy of the family? Keeping the situation even more tense is the mystery that surrounds the father, who, despite his lack of affection, conversation or explanations is not particularly a bad person; Lavronenko is an astute casting choice as he can quickly register displeasure or anger but his face always suggests the possibility of warmth. His sudden arrival, a handful of phone calls and “business” contacts, along with his bizarre journey to the island keep the father’s character shady.
Despite the occasional heavy hand or slightly-to-literal moments The Return
is intelligent, sparse and upsetting; Zvyaginstev cleverly mirrors the audience’s mistrust of the reserved, shadowy father with the boys’ confusion about this sudden apparition. It is inevitable that the brothers are going to be tested by this situation, the opening scene’s cries of cowardice and physical revenge point to a disturbing direction for the new family. An evocative score compliments the glassy, frigid look of the film, all of which seems to isolate the three males into a world of their own, drawing them out into nature to perform a kind of contest of character. The weaknesses of each individual spells doom for the trio as a whole and each character leaves the island a man, but men who never hoped to grow up in such a way.