ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 91 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Miranda Wells, who suffers from mysophobia [fear of germs], is about to become a surgical nurse and is buying a new house. One of her friends sets her up on a blind date with a man named Kevin. On the day of the date, while she’s still getting ready, Miranda hears someone outside on the porch. She opens the door and finds whom she assumes is Kevin standing there, and invites him in, whereupon he beats and rapes her before fleeing. The real Kevin arrives and calls the police, who then arrest William Finn, the actual rapist. Miranda tries to carry on with her life but can no longer work in surgery because of a hand tremor and can’t sell her house. She decides to write to William in prison….
Released after Rosamund Pike’s breakout hit Gone Girl but actually made before, I was both surprised and disappointed that Return To Sender [which has nothing to do with either the Elvis Presley song nor the 2004 drama of the same name] got such a minor low-key cinema release in the UK [in fact I just had to check that it actually did hit UK some UK cinemas as I didn’t remember it doing so]. Though I tend not to read other reviews just before doing one of my own, I do remember reviews for the film being quite poor at the time and a couple of quick glances indicate that this is probably still the case, though rape/revenge movies tend not to be much liked by critics [something not always the case with films about just the rape but not the revenge, to me a rather odd thing, as if we’re not supposed to get some enjoyment out of a rape victim punishing her attacker], so surely Return To Sender couldn’t be that bad, could it? I plead guilty, and I have no shame in admitting this, of having an interest in and a liking for this disreputable sub-genre anyway, though of course there are still good and bad examples of how to do this kind of thing well.
Well, Return To Sender, which may recall An Eye For An Eye and Hard Candy to some, is certainly not a great film, but it’s certainly worth your time if you find the subject matter interesting. It constantly seems to be on the edge of getting really good and – yes – really twisted, but never quite fulfils its potential, the latter, I expect, one of the reasons for the muted reception. Another possible reason could be that, for a lot of the time, it never really lets us know what our two main characters are thinking, and why they commit some of the bizarre actions that they do. This might be sheer laziness on the part of screenwriters Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett, but it might also be them wanting the viewer to make up his or her mind, something which doesn’t seem to be a popular thing these days. Then there’s the fact that director Fouad Mikati, who refuses to bring much style to the proceedings, takes the movie at a slow pace and doesn’t feel the need to ramp up any excitement, though I found parts of it quietly riveting. None of this can get away from the fact that there are some serious flaws with the film, some of them of an amusing kind like extras who drift awkwardly out of shot after saying their lines, and lines like “Why don’t you plant some rose bushes”? – would that be your advice to a rape victim?
Return To Sender only takes a short amount of time to establish the very vulnerable character of its heroine before having her assaulted, though it does it very succinctly. A scene in a laundrette where a customer leers at the girl working there tells us all we need to know about how repressed Miranda is. She’s already a woman who doesn’t seem to live in a ‘normal’ sexual world, which gives us a clue that her behaviour after being sexually assaulted might be a little different to that of many others. There’s some nice foreshadowing of the darkness to come when a guy in a hospital room whose mother has just died confesses that he was actually horrible to her during her hospitalistion, and when Miranda’s father Mitchell’s [Nick Nolte, whose lines often seem to be muffled by his beard] dog pounces on her and tears her dress. The actual rape, if very short, is appropriately unpleasant to watch what with the truly upsetting look of terror on Miranda’s face and the attacker half-strangling her as he does it. The film spares us the sight of him beating her and doesn’t even let us know of the beating until we see her battered and bruised in hospital. Miranda then seems to recover rather too quickly, or maybe the film just didn’t do a good job of letting us know that some time has passed. Eventually she does get out of hospital, but of course life isn’t the same, and Miranda can not only seem to find any peace but begins to cut herself even more from the rest of the world.
Then….she writes to William, her jailed attacker, and he writes back. We never learn much detail about the letters, and I don’t think we really need to. Soon she’s visiting him and they are having friendly chats. These scenes, which work as some kind of therapy for Miranda. are more convincing than you would expect [this kind of thing, which actually does occasionally happen in real life, is undoubtedly a hard thing to portray on screen], and not helped by some poor sound recording which makes some of William’s lines hard to make out, but the film deserves kudos for really going to some dark places here even if it perhaps goes too far with a painting montage and some moments where….really?….we are being asked to feel sorry for the scum that is William, though he does seem to be even more dumb than the rapists in the original I Spit On Your Grave, while Miranda actually becomes quite dislikeable with some of the things we learn. Sadly the film shies away from some moments which could have had great dramatic potential, like when Mitchell sees William, and the finale, which goes some way to explaining the behaviour of one of the two lead characters, is, without giving too much away, one you will have seen many times before though there’s no harm in seeing it again, though much is left to the imagination.
Pike, looking every inch like a classic Hitchcock blonde [if only she’d been around in the 1950’s!] is quite simply amazing in this film and, truth be told, probably the chief reason to re-watch it when the story’s surprises no longer surprise – in fact in a weird way her performance may actually seem even better the second time round when some of the nuances may become more noticeable. She transmits so well Miranda’s insecurity, horror and instability, though it can’t help seeming like a dry run for her performance for David Fincher at times if you’ve seen the film in question, and what is with Miranda’s pen obsession? Shiloh Fernandez, not at all an actor I’ve thought to be much good before, really steps up to the mark as William even if the script remains vague about many aspects of his character. He and Pike together have the weird, queasy kind of chemistry required in what is almost a two-hander from around two fifths of the film onwards. Supporting performances are also very strong throughout.
Mikati and his cinematographer Russell Carpenter give the proceedings a glossy, polished feel which is possibly at odds with the material but an interesting choice nonetheless. One thing that does work very well is Daniel Hart’s minimalist score which is able to evoke dread very simply, often with a sound that resembles that of a helicopter rota blade turning, with some very lengthy pieces. Return To Sender is a little clumsy and for every two good scenes there’s one that doesn’t quite ring true, while it does tend to look and feel like a TV movie and I personally just wished it would turn things up a notch, but its low key handling of its material just manages to resonate in its own right and much of the film is still compelling.
The Region B Blu-ray from Arrow Films has those few instances of muffled sound I mentioned earlier, though it’s possible that this may have been a flaw with the original cinema release as a quick look at some forums indicates that the Region A Blu-ray from another company has the same issues. Picture quality is extremely crisp and along with the very ‘summery’ photography makes the Blu-ray great to look at. Extras are limited to one short ‘making of’ which was possibly made for TV, though it’s great to see Pike enthuse about her role.