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Some people will do everything they can to avoid returning to their roots. Joanna Mills has good reason. She's haunted by strange visions of a past she can't remember ever experiencing. People she's never met. Places she's never set foot in. Crimes she's never seen. The surreal encounters have kept her away from her tiny Texas hometown.
That is, until she accepts a challenge at work to go after a notoriously hard-nosed potential client who happens to be from her old stomping grounds. The St. Louis-based saleswoman, who spends most of her time on the road, is determined to earn a promotion with a sealed deal. Yet as soon as she travels down the familiar back roads, the eeriness returns. Her car stereo system is stuck playing the same melody on every radio station and cassette tape. She hears voices over her cell phone and in crowded bars. And she catches glimpses of another woman staring back at her in the mirror.
The puzzle starts coming together when she encounters Terry, a shadowy town outcast who seems to be stalking her. Years ago, Terry's girlfriend, Annie, was murdered—and he's been suspected of the crime ever since. Joanna may have something to do with that.
Terry is genuinely concerned for Joanna's well-being, and on one occasion rescues her from an attempted rape. She, in turn, is drawn to his story and tries to set the record straight regarding his past. A friend helps Joanna out when she "bottoms out" as a result of her creepy visions.
An attacker swears "on Gideon's Bible" that he won't touch Joanna if she hands over a piece of evidence. While speaking of his late wife, Joanna's father says, "We'll find each other again."
[Spoiler Warning] Two-thirds of the way into The Return, it becomes evident that this is a story about the dead. More specifically, about a dead spirit inhabiting a living person. The car accident Joanna was in as an 11-year-old literally changed her life—and not just because of the trauma involved. As she lay dying in her father's arms, she was presumably brought back to life by the spirit of the freshly deceased Annie (who was also in the accident).
Thus, this becomes a story that ignores both God and His thoughts on our dealings with the dead. (Some of them are found in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, Isaiah 8:19 and Luke 16:19-31.) And beyond that, The Return seems to take things one step further with its final scene. Having just solved the mystery of Annie's death and done away with her killer, Joanna revisits the location of the haunted automobile accident. She looks deeply at the dusty intersection, recalls a few more things, takes a deep breath, then turns and faces a brighter tomorrow while bearing her first smile of the movie. The not-so-subtle point? Ultimately, freedom comes in avenging the death of the dead.
A dream sequence shows Joanna in bed with Terry, where we possibly see breast nudity. (The scene is blurred throughout.) As they embrace passionately, he kisses her neck repeatedly. She's also shown putting on her pants, and the camera briefly shows her underwear. A few women wear low-cut tops at a club.
Also, more significantly, ...
... after making a suggestive comment about Joanna "liking it rough," a co-worker attempts to rape her in her hotel room. Though "nothing more" is shown than him wrestling her down, the scene remains disturbing. In addition, he grabs her roughly on two other occasions. Several flashbacks to Annie's murder depict her being violently abducted and, though not shown, it's presumed that she was raped as well. (While trying to fight off her abductor, she cuts his ear, causing blood to flow.) In an earlier scene, Joanna wakes up in a field with her skirt slightly pulled up, which again hints at rape.
Terry beats Joanna's attempted rapist to a pulp, tossing him around, punching him in the throat and smashing his head on a car hood. A woman stabs a man, and the knife is later shown protruding from his throat. Another man gets tackled, kicked and pummeled with chains.
A car accident is shown more than once. Twice while driving, Joanna almost collides with oncoming vehicles. On one of those occasions, her truck flies off into a ravine, and she appears to be dead.
Joanna also injures herself. It's revealed that after she and her father were in the car accident, she became violent and began cutting herself—which she later explains was an obvious cry for help that he failed to recognize. Unfortunately, her current visions cause her to continue down this path. She's shown putting a blade to her arm and what appears to be her stomach. (Blood is shown both times.) A young Joanna smashes a bottle with her hand, also drawing blood.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is misused twice, once in combination with "d--n." Jesus' name is misspoken once. A single f-word and s-word accompany a few milder profanities, in addition to a character being called a "d--k."
Drug and Alcohol Content
One key location involved in Joanna's otherworldly journey is a bar. Several other characters either appear with alcohol in their hands, or they drink it with a meal. Joanna tries to shake off her trauma by going drinking with a friend at a club. She orders a shot of tequila and downs it. After Joanna relays a strange occurrence to her friend, the girl jokingly asks if she's already started drinking without her. She also comments about the pair drinking at a bar during their high school years.
Other Negative Elements
After a heated confrontation, a man spits at the feet of Terry.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is making a fortune off being the poster girl for the supernatural. Having already mastered her horror scream (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2), honed her powers over vampires (TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), solved the mysteries of ghostly encounters (Scooby-Doo) and shooed off demonic house hauntings (The Grudge), playing a possessed woman in The Return wasn't much of a stretch. Yet despite the familiar territory—both for her and the movie—the sinister story told here surprisingly holds its own in terms of genuine scares.
Eerie and tragic, it keeps in rhythm with its small-town Texas pace of life. The camera takes its time while venturing through old, empty and creaky houses. And silence comes just as frequently as the genre-typical mood music.
Still, at the core of this intriguing back-road tale is ultimately a darkness not worth descending into. In that darkness, rape, abduction and murder are unveiled, retold and relived repeatedly. The Return may not venture into the graphic bloodbath territory of the Saws, Hostels and Texas Chainsaws of the Hollywood world, but thanks to those disturbing situations and a deep-seated spiritual flaw, it nevertheless remains an unwelcoming homecoming.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Joanna Mills; Peter O'Brien as Terry Stahl; Sam Shepard as Ed Mills; Adam Scott as Kurt Setzer; Kate Beahan as Michelle
Asif Kapadia ( )