The Return (2003) SPOILERS
It could be said that The Return is a mercilessly empty movie. It lacks catharsis, climax and explanation. It is an existential crisis within itself – it defies definition. It is rife with tension that is never released, and a pain that is never exorcised. It is a film of isolation and desolation. It is about the pain of fathers and sons, and the potent nostalgia of childhood and family.
The title itself, The Return, is not solid. It is not a destination. It prompts questions: where are we returning to? Where have we been? The film is filled with several potential returns, but nothing resembling a true homecoming or arrival. The entire film is fluid. It is a film of constant movement. Water and clouds are omnipresent, and the few solid monuments that do exist are rickety, dangerous and suspect.
The tower bookends the film. The movie begins with boys jumping from a tower into water below – all except Ivan, the younger of the brothers. He alone stubbornly refuses to jump and refuses to descend. It becomes a source of shame for him – this grappling to prove himself and assert himself somehow. Ivan cannot prove himself to his peers, nor can he bring himself to admit defeat. He remains in a liminal space in between. Ivan also occupies a liminal space between childhood and manhood. He is not yet an adult, despite carrying himself so resolutely it is easy to forget he is in his early teens. His attitude it often at odds with his child-like appearance and habit of pouting with anger and bending into eventual obedience when faced with the domineering and elusive figure of his father.
The tower is also a phallic monument to masculinity. An anchor of identity in a world continuously in flux. A challenge to be surmounted and conquered – climbing the tower and leaping off should be a catharsis and validation, but Ivan resists as the film resists in delivering even a moment of satisfaction or resolution. The tower continuously looms.
Throughout the film the tower stands as the only man-made thing in a world overtaken by nature. On the island that the father takes his sons, there is nothing but decrepit, decaying buildings. Nature has infiltrated and transformed every man-made thing that once existed – save the tower which still stands and gives the climber the ability to view the entire island.
Nature is the great equalizer – it ends up taking back everything. At one point the boys catch a large fish that has taken up residence in an old, stranded boat. The boat is filled with the sea, and a fish lives inside. It is a complete reversal. Nature threatens all. Nature also is a mirror of the repression acutely felt in the film. The colours are muted, subdued – yet saturated. The dialogue between the father and the sons is stunted and caught somewhere, unable to escape. Conversations are cut short, questions are never answered. Repression is a crucial part in masculinity. Repression of emotion – except in the instance of violence or anger, when it can be used to assert power. Repression in order to fit an acceptable cultural mold.
Violence is what it boils down to. The great break in the relationship between the sons and the father. The expectation of violence is fulfilled. From the beginning, the father’s presence puts everything on edge – he is simply waiting for a chance to explode and unleash harm onto his sons. Eventually, the closest the father comes to forging an emotionally satisfying relationship with his sons is through violence. He begins to hit Andrei for being late coming back from fishing. Andrei resists, and his father grabs a hatchet and threatens to kill him, when Ivan reveals he has stolen his father’s knife and threatens to kill his father. Ivan tells his dad that he could love him – if he wasn’t so evil. He tells his father that he is nobody. His father protests this is not true. This is the catalyst that sends Ivan running to the watchtower in the middle of the island, that sends Ivan climbing to the top and locking his father below. It is what prompts Ivan to stand at the top of the tower threatening to jump – which he was unable to do before – and scream, “I can do anything!” As the audience, we expect, this is it.
Ivan’s sudden burst of rage and sudden surge of violence and power end up overwhelming his father. In an attempt to save his son, Ivan’s father climbs the outside of the tower – his eyes are wide with fear for his son’s life, and finally you can see that the father does love his sons. But he falls to his death. Everything we hope for – a catharsis, a revelation – is repressed, buried and beaten back. The moment we get a brief glimpse into the father’s inner self, his true character – the moment his mask cracks – we are rewarded with nothing.
The death of the father prematurely ends any hope of catharsis. Questions only remain. Everything about the father is unexplained. He fell from the tower, and the ocean claims his body when the boat sinks – mirroring his sons’ activities in the beginning of the film – leaping from a tower into the sea. The jovial activities of childhood culminate to this: eventual death in the most unceremonious way. The father dies repressed – his memory repressed, his love for his sons repressed. Clues to his identity that have been hinted at throughout the film (the box he digs up from the ground, for example), remain hidden and out of sight or knowledge from the sons. Untold stories that they will never know. Repressed forever. It is as if the father never existed. But his absence is so suffocating it can only be interpreted as a presence. Like Ivan, the father occupies a strange liminal space – a purgatory from which he is given no escape.
When the boys finally return to land from the island, they forget to tie up the boat and their father’s body floats out to sea in a rapidly sinking vessel. Ivan is the one to run out after the boat frantically, screaming “Papa! Papa!” – the boy who was so resistant to calling his father Dad now screams and runs to retrieve his father. But it is no use. His father’s corpse sinks, and his father’s secrets and identity with it.
What does remain are photographs. The end of the film is a slideshow of the photos taken with Andrei’s camera. The photos are beautiful and emotive – the photos are both an idealization and a consolation catharsis. They show the boys smiling on their ‘vacation,’ they picture their mother – beautiful. The father is absent in body in the pictures, but suddenly his influence and presence can be acutely felt.
And then, photos that are not from Andrei’s camera. The boys as children – younger and younger. And finally, the last photo, a father holding his infant son.
It is as if the photographs at the end of the film offer an alternative. A vision of what we’d rather have – a family, an amusing and fun childhood, a vacation that doesn’t end with two young boys dealing with the accidental death of a father that was absent for twelve years of their lives, and who was a man they never knew and will never know. His death leaves a gap in their lives, and completes the plot while leaving a void of absence that is at once filled with his powerful presence.
The photos at the end of the film are jarring because they seem so real. It makes us ask if the film we witnessed was reality at all – the pictures are a substitute reality, or are they the truth? We privilege photos as ‘truth’ because they are material proof of moments and reality. They make things exist for us, as memory is fallible. The slideshow forces us to question our conception of what was just witnessed. They are, after all, the only proof of what did happen. They omit the violence and eventual death of the father and grief of his sons.
The questions at the end of the film are, of course, overwhelming. It is a movie that asks questions. Personal questions. It asks us why we are so drawn to nostalgia – why it is the point of return over and over. Why the site of trauma (the tower, the home) are continually revisited with vigor. Why parents matter so much in the way our identity is shaped – even when they are absent. The expectations of a father figure, the expectation of violence from the father. Why is it that the role of the father is assumed to be a role of destruction? How can we escape this? How can we resolve rather than kill?
The Return is a profoundly uncomfortable film. It is incredibly difficult to discuss or analyze, because it is dense with so much. It is difficult to pull a single thread or theme without taking everything together. Yet, it offers no solace, only empty space.