Some boys stand on the edge of a lake, near an abandoned tower that serves as a diving platform. The youngest boy stands shivering at the top, terrified, until his mother climbs to his rescue. Later, another boy, at the other kids' urging, will call him chicken, a halfhearted gesture that brings a fat lip and a chase through near-deserted streets. The boys are brothers. They reach home breathless, only to find their mother outside smoking a cigarette. She tells them, without affect, that their father is home. The boys' mouths drop.
There are several striking things about this, the opening of a haunting and altogether remarkable Russian movie called The Return. The kids take turns jumping from the tower, but in a composed way that suggests a natural rite of passage. This is underscored by the immersive ambient noises on the soundtrack: whistling wind, seagull cries, the lapping of waves. As for the people themselves, we're thrown off guard when the boys get home and the mother suddenly has the look and evasive manner of a gun moll. We wonder what sort of man would prompt this change, until we meet the father (Konstantin Lavronenko). After a 12-year absence, he is shockingly present; he resumes his place at the table as if he'd just come home from work. He announces that he and the boys are going on an extended fishing trip. Why is he back in their lives, and what does he want?
The boys are left to worry, and so are we, which gives The Return the mounting unease of a psychological thriller. From the backseat, the bitter younger son, Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), maintains an escalating war of nerves, while older Andrei (Vladimir Garin), sitting up front, looks at their long-gone daddy with fearful admiration. Father and sons leave behind a sparsely populated modern Russia for a distant island where they might as well be the only people on earth.
Every Russian movie that reaches America usually gets read as religious or political allegory. The Return courts the former, with a father who appears forbidding and absent but has hard lessons of love to impart to his children. To the credit of director Andrei Zvyagintsev, making an extraordinarily controlled debut, the specifics of the human drama trump the symbolism. It helps that the two boys give natural and emotionally unguarded performances, creating a believable brotherly dynamic. Tragically, 16-year-old Garin drowned in the same lake not long after filming.
If the father embodies any larger concept, it's the mystery of an adult world that's unknowable to his adolescent sons. Male children spend their teenage years struggling against their fathers and the rest of their lives facing the same struggles. Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman fix this cycle of conflict in precise, ruggedly unsettling natural images, hard light and eerie totems of manhood: a missing knife, a hatchet, a lockbox that may contain all the secrets of the father's return. When a tower looms on the island, the movie's circle of dread closes, returning us to the film's mysterious first images. The father means to teach his boys to be men. In The Return's devastating ending, he succeeds only too well.
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