| National Catholic
The Independent Newsweekly
|At the Movies|
| Issue Date: February
Fear and Fatality
Russian 'Return' rich in symbolism; 'Monster' traces life of female killer
By JOSEPH CUNNEEN
The Return, a poetic and disturbing first film by new Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, will remind cinema buffs of the work of the late Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Stalker). Its enigmatic narrative, which suggests an allegorical interpretation, deals with the sudden return of the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) after a long, never-explained absence from his handsome blonde wife (Natalya Vdovina) and two adolescent sons, Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov).
The films powerful opening scene deals with younger son Ivans fear of heights, and the scene ends with the mother comforting him after he remains shivering on a tower from which he cannot bring himself to dive into the water. The brothers are mad about fishing but have mixed feelings when their sturdy, handsome father suddenly announces a camping trip, since he simply orders them to get ready and doesnt explain where theyre going.
The Return centers on the interactions between the boys and their father, with the older son anxious to please and Ivan consistently rebellious. Relations are constantly strained as the father, judgmental, demanding and always carrying a knife, drives them through a mysterious, desolate landscape to a deserted island.
On the island, the father leads Andrey up the steps of a high wooden tower from which there is a breathtaking view of the sea, but Ivan refuses to accompany them. The next morning, again without any explanation, the father leaves them and goes off to reconnoiter the island, finally unearthing a small trunk, which he reburies in a suspicious manner. Meanwhile Ivans anger has led him to steal his fathers knife, and the boys fail to meet the deadline the father has set for them to return from a fishing expedition. When the father strikes Andrey, to whom he has given his watch and made responsible to get back on time, Ivan runs off to climb the tower, which leads to the films climax.
The Return is an amazingly assured first film: elemental, taut and demanding. It is hard to believe that the youngsters playing Andrey and Ivan are acting; we feel we are reliving their fears and disagreements as they sleep in their tent at night while a campfire burns nearby. Although the father seems brutal, Zvyagintsev does not make him totally unsympathetic.
Sea, sky and wilderness are powerfully present in Mikhail Krichmans photography, and the director makes good use of the natural sounds of the journey, especially of gulls and surf. The closed logic of the film is tragic but its haunting central questions remain unexplained.
Monster has garnered high praise because of Charlize Therons Oscar-nominated performance as Aileen Wuornos, a scruffy prostitute electrocuted in Florida in 2002 after killing six men. Its worth pointing out, however, that her willingness to accept the part was largely because such bleak sensationalism seems to offer one of the few chances movie actresses have of getting critical attention. Although Patty Jenkins film shows sympathy for Wuarnos miserable childhood, it does not try to sentimentalize its story, remaining content with a fatalistic attitude toward life.
Monster centers on the complex lesbian relationship between Wuornos, already at the end of her rope, and Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a needy, insecure young woman whose pious parents have sent her to central Florida because they dont know what to do with her. Wuornos is almost out of money and beginning to contemplate suicide when she drops into a seedy gay bar by mistake. Selby is immediately attracted to Wuornos as a masterful and attractive older woman, while the latter, who has never had sex with a woman, is initially resistant. The two spend the night at Selbys place, and Aileen shows gratitude for a rare instance of genuine affection.
She soon takes over the part of controlling breadwinner, promising the dependent Selby a better life, even though her moneymaking skills are based on a willingness to pick up sexual partners on the highways of central Florida. The most terrifying scene occurs after a sadist ties her up and rapes her. Wuornos manages to free herself, then shoots her assailant and buries him before leaving with his money and his car.
Selbys desire to travel and enjoy creature comforts drives Aileen to further killings, even of a family man who had shown no intention to abuse her. Finally, after buying Selby a bus ticket to return to her parents, Aileen is arrested for the murder of a plainclothes policeman.
Monster ends with a fragment of her trial, at which Selby -- whom she still loves -- serves as a witness for the prosecution. Although the occasional narration by Wuornos doesnt plumb the depths of her story, Theron makes the character frighteningly memorable, her endless bravado concealing a need for help she never receives.
Joseph Cunneen is NCRs regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is SCUNN24219@aol.com
National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004
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