New Releases: The Return (2021) - Reviewed

The Return has a premise that makes it seem like a straightforward psychological thriller/ horror movie: a college student returns home after the death of his father and begins investigating his family’s mysterious past, while also dealing with a possible haunting. The first half plays mostly as expected, but the second supplies a few twists on the basic concept. It kept my interest even if it never got me excited. The direction it goes in for its payoff is interesting, despite the conclusion feeling somewhat unsatisfying. However, there are some issues in the character relationships and the way The Return tries to maintain suspense that really drag this down.

The setup is fairly obvious, initially. The house Rodger is coming back to is full of traumatic memories. It is where his father died and his little sister died when they were kids. Plus, being there inspires thoughts of his challenging relationship with his mother, a brilliant scientist. There is a lot for him to unpack, emotionally, so he brings along his caring girlfriend, Beth, and his sarcastic childhood friend, Jordan, for support. 

The usual formula in something like this is that the girlfriend is there so he has someone to talk to and the friend is there to be either a victim of jump-scares or the perpetrator of a couple of false scares. That is how things begin, with Beth being there for Rodger to spew exposition to and Jordan contributing weak personal conflict and a little comic relief.

Then, at a certain point, the movie shifts the two women toward a different path. Without giving anything away, I will just say it made me wonder why one of the characters was included in the story at all. They turn out to be nothing but a distraction and the way they are ultimately dealt with felt incredibly callous. It made me dislike Rodger right when his journey of discovery was about to reach its biggest moment. That is a shame because all three performances are good.

The other major issue is that The Return isn’t very successful at generating and sustaining tension. The audience sees what is in the house before Rodger and his companions do, but the movie is less interested in the idea of a ghostly presence wreaking havoc and more interested in explaining what it is, why it is there and what can be done about it. It explains and explains, with flashbacks and lots of digging through old boxes. Yet, at the end, I was still not entirely sure how Rodger figures out what is going on or how to solve it. 

A couple of significant plot developments seem to be rushed into using only a quick sentence. After so much time is spent establishing the various dynamics between the three main characters (some proving to be completely superfluous), some legitimately important stuff gets taken for granted. As a result, the conclusion, kind of cool in theory, doesn’t land with the intended impact.

The Return is okay at creating a mystery and introducing possibilities. There are several scenes where it comes close to working, though it never quite gets there. Sadly, it can’t create a creepy space, which is a large part of the reason it is unable to sustain dread or tension. The house only feels haunted when the creature is actively up to something, as opposed to other stories of this nature where a presence is always being felt. Add to that a cluttered screenplay, with more characters and red herrings than turn out to be necessary, and this becomes a mess.

--Ben Pivoz