The Return

2006, Movie, PG-13, 85 mins


London-born director Asif Kapadia's second feature, following 2001's critically acclaimed THE WARRIOR, is a slow, low-key supernatural thriller whose story is too slender to justify its feature-length running time.

Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a top-notch sales representative for a St. Louis, Missouri-based interstate trucking company whose job keeps her constantly on the road to everywhere but her home state, Texas. Restless and high-strung, Joanna hates to stay still; she's haunted by the vague feeling that something is always gaining on her, and the only way to escape its clutches is to keep moving. Some of Joanna's troubles are mundane enough: She's estranged from her widowed father (Sam Shepard), and her violent ex-boyfriend Kurt (Adam Scott) — who is, unfortunately, also her co-worker — refuses to accept that their relationship is over. But there's more to why Joanna refuses to go back Texas, and it's connected to her bouts of self-mutilation that in some way she can't or won't examine until forced to. The catalyst is an opportunity too good to pass up: Her company has been trying to land a major Texas-based account, and Joanna's high-school best friend, Michelle (Kate Beehan), can get her some face time with the man in charge. So she hits the road, and as soon as she's in the lone star state, the bad dreams begin. The longer Joanna stays, the more she feels compelled to uncover and confront the secret she's been running from since she was 11 — a secret that's somehow connected to a car crash, a weather-beaten small town called La Salle, Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" and the strangers face that sometimes gazes out from the mirror instead of her own. Joanna moves into La Salle's only hotel and finds herself strangely drawn to rugged Terry Stahl (Peter O'Brien), a local with a bad reputation and a dark secret of his own.

First-time screenwriter Adam Sussman's restrained ghost story bucks current trends in mainstream horror by being neither a remake nor a gore-soaked exercise in sheer, unrepentant nastiness. The trouble is that genre regulars will see where the mystery is going long before Gellar's Joanna does. If the central performances were richer and more subtle, the last half hour — which builds painstakingly toward the moment when all the pieces come together and we see precisely how a chance encounter on a dark back road blighted two lives — could have been almost unbearably suspenseful. As it is, it's just a slow slog to a payoff that isn't worth the effort. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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