Sparse, deliberate, and patiently observed, "The Return" offers a haunting portrait of two brothers who reunite with their long-lost father. A hit on the festival circuit, Andrei Zvyagintsev's film won the Golden Lion at Venice, Discovery of the Year at the European Film Academy Awards, and a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.
"The Return" opens with a powerful scene: under a leaden Russian sky, a group of boys test their courage by jumping off a tower into an equally grey lake. Only Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) refuses to follow the others, no matter how much his older brother Andrey (Vladimir Garin) exhorts him. Too proud to admit defeat and climb down the ladder, Vanya sits on top of the tower, shivering and alone in the darkening day.
Indeed, Vanya's stubbornness is bound to stay with you. It is the brooding younger brother who harbors the most reservations when their mother announces that their father, gone for twelve years, has suddenly reappeared. A dead ringer for Billy Bob Thornton, Dad (Konstantin Lavronenko) is scruffy and mysterious. Were it played for laughs, the family reunion could figure in a Russian joke, when the sons greet him with "Hello, Dad" and the father responds: "Let's drink." The boys don't know where he has been, why he has come back, or where he is taking them when he announces a road trip.
The three men -- one grown, two on the cusp of adulthood -- hit the road, shown with exceedingly elegant cinematography by Mikhail Kritchman. Timeless and indistinct, the rainy landscape is as rugged and earthy as the father, admired by naïve Andrey and eyed suspiciously by glowering Vanya. With painstaking eye for adolescent psychology, "The Return" develops a complex triangle of authority and need, submission and revolt. In other words, Dad turns out to be a bit of a jerk, short tempered and possibly dangerous, and the boys don't know if they should hate or love him. Our sympathies shift and dance along with the protagonists'.
When it finally turns nautical, "The Return" takes a page out of Polanski's "Knife in the Water" to leave its protagonists literally stranded in each others' presence. The outcome is, as it must be, violent.