In some ways, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut feature The Return is a very un-Russian work. It’s free from the social commentary present in later works such as Elena and Leviathan while its archipelagic setting has a timeless, non-place quality to it. And yet, The Return is suffused with a mysticism and pseudo-spiritual sheen that places it firmly in a distinctly Russian context, earning Zvyagintsev comparisons to Andrey Tarkovsky when he burst onto the scene.

The Return, ostensibly a film about male relationships, begins with a cookie-cutter scene of competing masculinities. A group of young boys are jumping from a tall tower into a lake. They all jump, until only Ivan, the youngest, is left. Caught between a desire to prove himself and a fear of the unknown, Ivan freezes is left stranded to be picked up by his mother. His older brother Andrey, and the others, call him a chicken.

Andrey and Ivan return home to find their father, who’s been gone for 12 years, asleep at home. Offering no explanation nor apology, their disciplinarian father inserts himself into the domestic setting – until now a place mediated by their mother and grandmother – with brutal force. Dispassionately, almost robotically, he forces his two young sons to drink wine and announces they’ll be going on a fishing trip the next morning. 

What unfolds is a disquieting, sinister portrayal of a father at odds with his role. Their fishing trip soon starts to look more like a gruelling, military-grade test of a particularly narrow version of manhood, one based on violence, control and solitude. Andrey and Ivan, already suspicious of their father’s unexplained return, increasingly find his behaviour threatening, and fears of harm soon become menacingly real. At the film’s halfway point, Ivan breaks down and delivers a stirring indictment against his father, asking what sort of sick game he’s playing with them. Who’s the chicken now?

Visually, The Return is a breathtaking study in blue. Shot during the Summer “white nights” of St Petersburg, the pale hues of Zvyagintsev’s pallet evoke a dreamlike quality, making Andrey and Ivan’s terrors all the more unsettling. When their suspicions grow that the alleged fishing trip might be a front for their father’s criminal activities, Zvyagintsev’s mixes his fixed camera positions with more unstable footage, as we feel the boys’ reality detach from its hinges. Indeed it is in Zvyagintsev’s delicate camerawork where we find echoes of Tarkovsky; in the slowly creeping shots, the lonely depictions of wide, elemental landscapes, the use of silence to carry narrative forward. 

After a nail-biting climax whose outcome is unexpected if inevitable, The Return ends with a coda of black and white photographs, as if flicking through a vintage carousel slide projector of the boys’ holiday. The photos themselves are magnificent, beautifully composed and expertly finished. But their smiling faces and carefree youthfulness feel oxymoronic to their ordeal. What is Zvyagintsev doing here? Is this coda an ode to two young, resilient boys who’ve been through so much? Or a sly, self-referential comment on the paucity of representation? Or perhaps an idealistic call to find light in darkness? The Return ends as inscrutably as the boys’ father arrived. 

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