Andrey Zvyagintsev’s wonderful debut feature opens with a simple childhood test. A group of boys stand atop a look-out tower on stone pier against a drab Russian sky. Each one jumps, terrified, into the icy water below. The two boys left are brothers Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) and Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and when the older finally jumps, leaving Ivan on the tower in the shivering cold, it’s only his mother who eventually comes to his rescue as the night draws in.
It’s simplistic scene beautifully shot and outlays the rest of the film effortlessly. The way the young brothers push each other in the early parts of the film makes way for the titular return of the boy’s father after a 12 year absence and the planned fishing trip which will reconnect them. The spare setting and their mother’s odd complacency about the mysterious reappearance set a tense and disturbing tone and as the ever testing father begins to pit the boys against one other on their lake The Return grows into a brilliant psychological thriller. The smallest of tasks becomes a rite of passage for the children and the tiniest comment can separate or make good in the ever watchful eyes of their father.
The director has stated in interviews that the film made all of it’s low budget back before it even went to it’s debut festivals and it isn’t hard to see why. Zvyagintsev’s film looks great, is acted impeccably by the young stars and Konstantin Lavronenko’s stern face is perfect as their stoic Father/captor. The Return hints at the themes of the most watchable of national treasure Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and though purposely drab in colour and slow in pace there is definitely more than enough going on under the taught surface to keep you well and truly mesmerised.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s second (and superior) picture The Banishment would go on to use Larvronenko to brilliant effect but it’s his stone faced presence in this lesser seen debut that will keep you watching. It’s macho frame isn’t big enough to hide the sad and (one can’t help but think) more personal aspects of the film.
Tainted with menace both on screen and off (tragically the young Vladimir Garin would drown in the lake where much of the film was shot), The Return certainly isn’t an easy watch but it’s definitely a rewarding and frightening one.