The Return

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Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O’Brien, and Sam Shepard. Rated PG.

The Return isn’t a great horror film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there’s a fair whack of imagination-stretching required to make it through the movie’s 85 minutes. But it’s just so damn refreshing to see a modern fright flick that isn’t bursting with hyperkinetic edits, ear-piercing sound effects, and gruesome torture. It’s a nice change not to be assaulted by extreme noise and nastiness while searching for a scary buzz, and this low-key supernatural thriller, illogical as it is, offers a brief respite from the gruelling Saws and Hostels of the world.

Fresh from her glorified cameo in the unfortunate The Grudge 2, Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as Joanna Mills, a troubled young woman trying to come to grips with the disturbing visions she’s been suffering since childhood. We first see her as a young girl (impressive newcomer Darrian McClanahan) with a bruise on her forehead, visiting a carnival with her folksy father (Sam Shepard, the king of folksy). She catches a glimpse of a ponytailed, unsmiling man standing beside a ride, and for some reason the guy terrifies her. She screams and runs and hides under a vendor’s booth, and before her panicking dad can search her out, she discovers a penchant for self-mutilation.

Fifteen or so years later, Joanna is an ambitious sales rep for a St. Louis trucking firm who jumps at the prospect of a business trip to her home state of Texas, even though she’s steadfastly avoided the place. Once she makes it there in her fancy truck, things get weirder by the minute. Her visions become more violent and vivid, the radio in her pickup won’t stop playing Patsy Cline, and she feels a strong attraction to a suspected wife murderer (Peter O’Brien) who lives in a dumpy farmhouse. Only after some mighty slick manoeuvring by first-time screenwriter Adam Sussman do we learn the traumatic origin of Joanna’s psychological torment—and that bruise from Scene One.

Gellar is okay as the determined and sympathetic heroine, and Asif Kapadia’s assured direction helps keep her actions and motivations from seeming too ridiculous. The original score by V for Vendetta’s Dario Marianelli is nice and spooky, and Pride & Prejudice cinematographer Roman Osin effectively captures the wide-open spaces of rural Texas.

Judging by the gaggle of female teens seated behind me at a Sunday matinee, there are at least six scream-worthy moments in The Return. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that the film, although a bit confusing, was strangely absorbing. And the total lack of decapitations was not a problem.