In its dramatic shift from the real to the allegorical, the ending of Andrey Zvyagintsev's auspicious debut feature The Return is likely to leave many viewers scratching their heads, flummoxed over how the last five minutes reflect on the events that preceded them. But different readings yield the same results: Whether taken literally or not, The Return is the psychologically incisive story of two young brothers grappling with a father's absence, even when he's frighteningly present. With patience and acuity, Zvyagintsev draws out their tortured dynamic as the boys try to connect with a dark, imposing figure who rarely seems like more than a stranger. Their short time together raises all sorts of fundamental questions, but as the journey progresses, the answers recede further from view.
Interpretations may vary, but few will dispute Zvyagintsev's ability to coax remarkable performances from his child actors, who are sympathetic but never mawkish, and intelligent without seeming too precocious. Left for their mother to raise, Vladimir Garin and his kid brother Ivan Dobronravov react differently when their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) suddenly resurfaces in their home 12 years after his disappearance. Shortly thereafter, Lavronenko takes the boys on a fishing trip, but this ostensible vacation grows increasingly tense, as the father exerts a fearsome authority while barely showing a glimmer of affection. While Garin clings to Lavronenko in search of approval, the meeker Dobronravov rouses the unexpected courage to revolt, opening a rift between the two brothers.
Whether the father cares for his children is an open question, at least until the climactic scene, but Lavronenko's implacable aura seems designed to distill a missing decade of masculinity into one week. Once any hope of light recreation sputters away into physical trials and punishments, The Return grows more desperately poignant, as the boys' natural attempts to bond with their mysterious taskmaster are coldly rebuked. Throughout his expertly controlled film, Zvyagintsev never allows a break in the clouds to provide some reassuring sign that the brothers are on solid footing. As a result, the sustained intensity connects viewers more closely with the boys' wrenching experience, because they know as little about "Dad" as Garin and Dobronravov do. The uncompromising conclusion, when it arrives, offers the coldest of comforts.