Ghost stories revolving around a central female character tend to make me feel a bit ill.
Imagine Jennifer Love Hewitt in Ghost Whisperer or Patricia Arquette in Medium. She stares vaguely, yet intently, at someone or something we can't see. She puts on her most empathetic face and urges, "Go toward the light."
I don't dislike these things because ghosts are oh-so-scary, or because girls are icky, but because they tend to fall into the trap of seeing women as spiritual, maternal, irrational bags of emotion and psychic power. I find it kind of insulting.
But, really, mainly, I just find it annoying.
Hence, imagine my skepticism approaching The Return, a ghosty-past-life sort of flick starring a raven-haired Sarah Michelle Gellar. Sure, I'm a huge Buffy fan, but I'd rather swill Kyle Gass's used bathwater than watch one of those shows, and this sure sounded -- in the abstract -- like Ghost Whisperer's older, movie-fied sister.
Well, though this was not my favorite movie, I'm happy to give it these kudos: it is not Ghost Whisperer's sibling -- not even its incestuous love child, or its wacky transvestite cousin. It's trying to do something different, which I appreciate, even if I'm not sure it ultimately made for truly compelling filmmaking.
Here's the basic story: Sarah Michelle Gellar, aka Joanna, experienced a strange car accident as a child, followed by a couple strange hallucinatory experiences involving a scary man who called her "sunshine." Now, as a 25-year old woman, these experiences are coming back, and she finds herself led to La Salle, Texas -- specifically to a bar, a farmhouse, and an attractive, mysterious drifter, all of which seem strangely familiar. It becomes apparent that she is, somehow, involved in a 15-year old murder case. But will she figure out this mystery before she gets sucked down by her own hallucinations and the very real dangers of La Salle, Texas? Only Jennifer Love Hewitt knows.
This is a highly atmospheric film, which is its best asset. Director Asif Kapadia's previous film, The Warrior, was apparently of a similar ilk. It doesn't go in for shots of Gellar looking empathetic, telling the residents of La Salle to head toward the nearest light in the case of an emergency. Instead, there's very little talking at all. We mostly get shots of Gellar -- looking increasingly confused and shaky -- traveling through Texas's lonely byways, looking at herself in mirrors, trying to piece together the unraveling fragments of her own past. The film manages to build a quiet, compelling momentum, and to forge audience empathy with the confused and scared Gellar, who is mainly saved from Hewitt-like-annoyingness by her utter inability to figure out what's going on. The film also avoids -- in general -- over-explaining or over-analyzing. It gives the audience some credit for being able to put some pieces together themselves.
I did enjoy this film -- in that I didn't particularly wish I were somewhere else. It was oddly calm for a horror film, and pleasantly atmospheric. However, it didn't have much more than that going for it -- and, in fact, those strengths may ultimately work against it.
Occasionally, characters did have to open their mouths, and sometimes it was cringeworthy. Like Gellar stating, "If I keep moving forward, nothing bad can catch me" -- a psychological insight of the Cracker Jacks variety that any audience member worth two cents had figured out hours before she delivers the line. Statements like this tended to come across as useless filler; more staring-into-mirrors would have been better.
And the film's oddly calm atmosphere is both a blessing and a curse. It was different from your average horror film, which I found mildly interesting at the time, but it also made the film, ultimately, utterly bland and forgettable. I probably won't remember this film in a week.
The film's ultimate revelation of the mystery behind Gellar's connection to La Salle was also underwhelming. While, again, the film gave the audience the credit to figure it out without excessive explanation or moralizing, it wasn't terribly exciting or innovative.
Wait for it to come out on DVD. Or go to New York and see Evil Dead: The Musical and tell your friends you were watching The Return.
Or, do something really worthwhile: find the producers of Ghost Whisperer and help them get to the light.