Sarah Michelle Gellar had to face demons, vampires, and hellspawn each week on “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.” In the interests of furthering her career, Gellar left the show (which didn’t even try to survive without her) and moved her focus to film… where she’s taken on Japanese spirits, Scooby-Doo monsters, and now, in The Return, a haunting mystery from the past. She should have stuck with slaying vampires. At least there the paycheck was steady and the stories were much better than this movie.
In The Return, Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a successful traveling salesperson in the blue-collar industry. Despite having some sort of personal rule about not traveling to Texas, where she grew up, Joanna decides to make her next sales pitch close to her former home. As a result, she begins having strange flashbacks, not all of which belong to her. As she tries to discover the truth behind the memories, she unearths an unsolved murder mystery while the audience grows bored of an all to predictable plot assembled from convenient moments and ideas from other movies that told the same story better using actors who were able to convey the frightening situation they were in much better than Gellar.
This film is being sold as a supernatural thriller, akin to Gellar’s other franchise The Grudge. The sales campaign is so effective that I thought The Return was also based on a Japanese horror film, like The Grudge. Don’t believe it. The “thriller” moments that exist are primarily created through artificial scares irrelevant to the story and out of place jumps in the music designed solely to make the audience jump in their seats. There is nothing even remotely sublime at play here however.
Mostly The Return is just a murder mystery with a few supernatural elements that really have very little point to being there. Sure, theoretically Joanna wouldn’t even discover this mystery if it wasn’t for another character’s memories, unless, of course, writer Adam Sussman actually tried to come up with something original instead of this film. What little supernatural aspects there are to the story are there for plot convenience and an effort to confuse the audience a little. It doesn’t work.
Thanks to the lack of originality, the audience can guess what’s going on before the half-way point of the film fairly easily, leaving the movie’s detailed final explanation for the few audience members who either weren’t paying attention, haven’t seen enough of these near-formulized plots, or were busy making out. Considering the PG-13 rating which clearly states the targeted audience for the film, my bet is on the latter. The explanation, which works so hard to explain to the audience what has been going on all along, emphasizes the supernatural parts of the movie that were thrown in for convenience – since they don’t mean anything, they aren’t explained.
The good news is that The Return is set up in such a way that there is no real room for a sequel, making this a stand-alone film instead of an attempt at a new franchise. Unless, of course, someone tosses enough money in the right direction. For my tastes, the only Return I’m looking forward to from Gellar is the return of Buffy after Gellar realizes it’s the only place she can get away with this kind of work and call it a career.