Maybe tough love `Return' should stay away

May 14, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Strip away the portentous style and lush views of nature in The Return and all you've got is a slender nightmare of a family gone haywire in an outing that turns into survival camp.

Konstantin Lavronenko plays a father - listed in the credits only as Father - who imposes a tough-love regimen on two sons after he returns from an unexplained 12-year absence. The younger boy, Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), resists paternal authority. The older boy, Andrey (Vladimir Garin), welcomes it. To quote the Far Side cartoon showing a child-care center next to a dingo breeder, there's trouble brewing.

After a brief visit home and a night in Mother's bed, Father takes Andrey and Vanya on a supposed fishing vacation that turns into a trial for kids and audience alike. Every casual request, such as Father asking Andrey to find a restaurant in a strange town, becomes a test of the kids' competence. Every childish misstep becomes an excuse for harsh punishment, like Father pushing Vanya out of the station wagon because the boy whines about leaving a fishing spot too early. When they reach their final destination - an island where Father retrieves a mysterious rusting strongbox - the clash between the patriarch and Vanya turns unremittingly vicious and destructive. But with flimsy, pretentious ambiguity, the movie suggests Father might have Vanya's best interests in mind.

The director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has said that "the film is a mythological look on human life. This is probably what I would like the audience to keep in mind before they enter the screening room." He shows his hand at the start, when the boys leaf through Bible illustrations that include Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. But the movie lacks the clarity or resounding potency of myth. Father is no more than a seedy version of Everydad, ogling a female passer-by in a tight skirt or using brute masculine force on his children. The strongbox is a red herring that by the end lies sleeping with the other fishes.

The kids' wrenchingly immediate performances end up undercutting the fable-like framework. Garin (who drowned before the film premiered) and Dobronravov nail the psychological push-pull of close siblings. Garin's Andrey may be physically confident and socially adept but Dobronravov's Vanya has more individuality and willpower. These young actors make their conflicting attitudes palpable, even jolting. They deserve better than a tricked-up ending that pivots on Vanya's fear of heights and takes the action to an irretrievably melodramatic low.

The Return

Starring Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov and Konstantin Lavronenko

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Released by Kino

Rating Unrated; in Russian, with English subtitles

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score **

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