Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 film The Return opens with a shot of a sunken rowboat and then, after a title card reading “Sunday,” shows a group of boys jumping into a lake from a high platform. One boy, Ivan (sometimes called Vanya, and played by Ivan Dobronravov), can’t go through with it. His friends and his older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), leave him behind, and his mother (Nataliya Vdovina) has to get him down. He’s ashamed and upset that everyone will think he’s a coward, including her, but she insists that that’s not true.
A scene of this sort might appear in any number of coming-of-age films. Maybe Ivan will eventually find the courage to jump at a crucial moment, or maybe he’ll realize that other people’s opinions aren’t important, that his mother’s love is unconditional, that true courage… Well, you get the picture. As presented in The Return, however, a positive outcome seems much less likely. Even if we ignore the submerged boat, the whole atmosphere is unsettling, with ominous music and a wide open landscape, beautiful but bleak, all blues and grays, that seems capable of swallowing up every trace of humanity without a moment’s notice. There’s also this exchange between Ivan and his mother:
Ivan: Mom, I was so scared. If you hadn’t come, I’d have died.
Ivan’s mother: Don’t be silly, dear. I’m here with you now.
The uneasiness of this opening is only a foretaste of the rest of the movie. Ivan and Andrei come home the next day and find that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) has returned — for the first time in twelve years. The two boys were so young when he left that they don’t remember what he looked like, and they have to dig out an old family photo to verify that this man is actually him. At dinner that evening, when Andrei asks the father if they can go for a ride in his car at some point, he declares that they’ll go on a trip the next morning.
Even before they leave the house, it’s clear that Ivan and Andrei have very different reactions to their father’s unexpected reappearance. Andrei is happy to have him back, calls him “Papa,” admires his physical fitness; Ivan wonders where he came from and remarks that “he doesn’t look like” a pilot. As Andrei points out, it’s a silly concern (“He’s on vacation. Why wear a uniform?”), but most viewers are apt to share Ivan’s skepticism, which grows stronger by the minute once they set out on their trip. Without giving too much away in this paragraph, let’s just say that the father’s volatile personality and mysterious behavior, mixed with Ivan’s ever-increasing doubts and Andrei’s unwillingness to accept those doubts, creates an almost palpable tension, a relentless sense of dread that something terrible and sudden is bound to happen.
Major spoilers from this point forward!
And then he dies, and his secrets die with him. We never learn exactly what kind of “business” causes him to extend the trip, or what’s in the box that he excavates and hides in the boat, or why he “had too much [fish] once” somewhere “far away.” We never even learn why he left his wife and sons in the first place. It’s an admirable technique — we’re put in the same position as Ivan and Andrei, who don’t get any answers either, at least in the course of the film — but it’s also (intentionally) frustrating. Everything about the man remains a mystery, so it’s much harder to piece things together or make an educated guess than it is in most movies with ambiguous endings, such as Inception or Pale Flower. When a series of black and white still photographs started to play, I thought, “Ah, I see. They’ll show a bunch of innocuous pictures first, and then the last one or last several will reveal something that will make all the pieces fall into place.” Nope. Roll credits. (Notably, there don’t appear to be any photos from the twelve-year period of the father’s absence.) At that point, I was expecting something so mind-blowing that I probably would have been disappointed with any explanation that was offered, as I was with Don’t Look Now and The Vanishing (both of which I recommend anyway). Is that comforting? Maybe a little. Is it satisfying? No, not really. To be honest, I still can’t decide if the lack of answers was brilliant or a cop-out, but at any rate, I won’t forget The Return anytime soon.