Poor in spirits

By By Mark Mitchell

By Mark Mitchell

“The Return”

Rogue Pictures

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Written by Adam Sussman

Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O’Brien, Adam Scott, Kate Beahan and Sam Shepard

Rated PG-13/85 minutes

Opened Nov. 10, 2006

Two out of four stars

In 1998, the exhausted corpse of the horror-thriller genre rolled over and died, its last rotted breath being the release of “Psycho,” a shot-for-shot remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic. Gus Van Sant’s decision that the greatest horror film of all time needed a reboot caused the earth to open up and swallow all the originality left in the genre. From then on, we have been forced to suffer through remakes of superior foreign fare or–God forbid–brave the murky waters of “What Lies Beneath.”

One, then, approaches a dinky little thing like “The Return” less as a movie and more as a product. Like Cheez Whiz or cheap liquor, the question isn’t whether it’s good (it’s not), but whether it’s effective. Will it get high school and college women happily shrieking, and will it allow for socially acceptable date-clutching?

Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a vulnerable young woman from St. Louis with a history of self-abuse and is tormented by unsettling visions. A sales rep for a trucking company, Joanna heads to the fictional town of La Salle, Texas, to close a deal and slay her demons.

Oh, small-town Middle America, how thou doest creak and moan under the weight of suppressed secrets.

We spend a lot of time in Joanna’s truck, her decrepit hotel room and a dilapidated barn while she is triply stalked by an abusive coworker, a filthy hillbilly and a mysterious, sexy stranger. I won’t spoil things by telling you which one she ends up with.

The plot is thin, and even at a mere 85 minutes, the film is too slow. And when things do happen, they are either inconsequential, nonsensical or occasionally both.

For example, Joanna’s coworker appears at a bar in Texas for the apparent sole narrative purpose of abusing her and attempting rape, even though by all accounts he should still be in Missouri. This encounter is never explained, and we never hear from the character again.

For thrills, director Asif Kapadia relies heavily on jump cuts accompanied by furiously overworked violins. It’s jolting, to be sure, but for all the wrong reasons. The audience, its eyes having glazed over from the long stretches of nothingness happening on screen, is caught completely off guard by the feeling that something of importance has happened.

Which, of course, didn’t, since none of the puzzle pieces presented to the audience really has anything to do with the big reveal.

It’s frustrating to watch a film like “The Return” because none of the various parts taken by themselves have anything terribly wrong with them. For the most part, the acting is fine and the directing competent. The story would be well suited for a short film.

But in the end, they all add up to nothing.

“The Return” is gritty, just not in any meaningful way. The settings are dank and dirty, and the main characters are treated horribly.

Even the audience can’t escape unscathed. Everyone’s mistreated, and for no redeeming purpose.