Director Andrei Zvyagintsev offers an entrancing, albeit bleak and unforgiving story of two boys who rediscover their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) after he returns from 12-year absence. Amid a lush and suspenseful wilderness backdrop, the two teenagers, Andrei (Vladimir Garin) and Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), come to grips with the sudden tough-love attention of their father, and the resulting battle of wills. Although the father's cruelty is often overt, Zvyagintsev goes to considerable lengths to establish that the wayward father is more awkward with his new charges than evil. Taciturn and gruff, the father is a man with secrets that are never fully revealed.
While the backdrop of this suspenseful and perplexing movie is a rather foreboding wilderness, filmed in muted hues on overcast days, the central story is the budding yet precarious relationship among these three characters. Andrei proves ready for paternal guidance, but Vanya is more detached, more rebellious, and ultimately more skeptical about the sudden appearance of his father. Told primarily through Vanya's eyes, the viewer slowly feels as awkward and wary as the younger son. As a result, The Return takes on heavily mythic themes in its determination to examine human life, and how father and sons struggle in classic ways to simultaneously understand and conquer each other. It is, ultimately, a highly charged, symbolic study of life and fate and the uneasy associations that tie people to one another.
With stilted dialogue--often rich with deeper meaning--the plot takes turns that are simultaneously unexpected and riveting. The Return, which won the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is a great exploration of the human condition. Each line is delivered in a way that suggests something of significance lurks just below the surface, but true to classic Russian film and literature that significance is never overtly revealed.