Return to Sender

Return to Sender
Director: Fouad Mikati
Screenplay: Patricia Beauchamp & Joe Gossett
Stars: Rosamund Pike (Miranda Wells), Shiloh Fernandez (William Finn), Nick Nolte (Mitchell Wells), Camryn Manheim (Nancy), Alexi Wasser (April), Rumer Willis (Darlene), Illeana Douglas (Judy), Stephen Louis Grush (Randy), Donna Duplantier (Karen), Ian Barford (Gary Harland), Billy Slaughter (Kevin), Scout Taylor-Compton (Crystal)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2015
Country: U.S.Return to Sender
Return to SenderNote: The following review contains major spoilers. If you don’t want to know how the film ends (which is key to its effectiveness), stop right here!

I wish I could go back and watch Return to Sender without having seen either the trailer or the one-sheet poster, both of which make it abundantly clear exactly where the story is headed. Of course, knowledge of a plot’s general direction does not inherently ruin the enjoyment of the storytelling, but in this case I can’t help but feel that the film’s marketing robs it of what could have been a genuinely shocking final act, rather than the expected culmination of events.

In the most basic sense, Return to Sender is a rape-revenge story, a rather storied B-movie genre that counts among its numbers some of the most notorious films of the video age, including Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). The very name of this genre tells you exactly what is going to happen, which suggests that the “what” is not as important to these films’ effectiveness as the “how.” We all know that the rape victim will avenge herself on her attackers; the only question is how will she do and how terribly will the attacker suffer? It’s a fundamentally simplistic genre, one that revels in our most basic sense of righteous justice, law and order be damned.

The marketing for Return to Sender ruins the film’s potential effectiveness precisely because it makes it obvious from the outset that it will be a rape-revenge film, whereas the film itself, for roughly two-thirds of its running time, studiously hides those intentions (although hints are certainly dropped). Screenwriters Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett and director Fouad Mikati (Operation: Endgame) keep the film’s narrative trajectory purposefully muddy, which has the potential to create real intrigue—if you go into the film fully blind.

Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) stars as Miranda Wells, a nurse who lives a particularly ordered, well-manicured life. She is excellent at her job and demonstrates other talents, as well (she is particularly good at baking and decorating lavish cakes), although her exacting abilities are connected with her obsessive-compulsive tendencies (at the dry cleaners she winces at the idea of using a community pen to sign the receipt, for example). She had good rapport with her coworkers and friends and maintains a close relationship with her father, Mitchell (Nike Nolte), with whom she regularly has dinner at a particular diner. Unfortunately, at that diner she catches the attention of William Finn (Shiloh Fernandez), a seedy young drifter working as a dishwasher who develops a crush on her and shows up at her house one day. Mistakenly thinking that he is the blind date she is expecting that evening, Miranda lets her into the house, at which point he turns on her and rapes her.

The attack leaves Miranda with deep emotional scars and a tremor in her hands that keeps her from advancing to the much-coveted position of surgical nurse. She is also unable to decorate cakes, thus robbing her of both professional advancement and personal pleasure in her favorite hobby. For reasons that are left purposefully vague at this point, she decides to confront William, whom she was able to identify and who is now serving time in prison. She begins writing him letters, which he refuses to accept for some period of time. Eventually he writes her back, and she goes to see him in prison, at which point they start to develop a wary relationship. As I noted earlier, Miranda’s motivations for initiating and then encouraging an emotional connection with her rapist are vague here, although we are led to believe through her actions and her words that she is simply trying to find some way to overcome the trauma she endured and continues to endure.

Things become even more complicated when William is paroled and Miranda allows him to come to her house and help her build and paint a front porch, something that her father understandably finds utterly repugnant. Again, at this point we are meant to be unsure of what is happening, and I imagine that there should be some suspense as to where the relationship is going. When Miranda and William sit next to each other on the porch painting a rocking chair, they come dangerously close to a romantic physical connection, which is horrifying given that the film has demonstrated that William, despite evincing an aw shucks country boy vibe and seeming remorse for his previous actions, is, in fact, still a violent, dangerous man (we see him physically assaulting and terrifying his much larger cellmate in prison).

Of course, if you’ve seen the trailer or the one-sheet, it is patently clear what is happening: Miranda is setting a trap, luring William into a false sense of comfort that will make his later entrapment, torture, and (we surmise) death at her hands all the more punishing. The victim becomes the aggressor, the aggressor the victim, and the circle is complete. And, even though the film worked well enough for me even though I knew with no small certainty what was coming, I can only imagine how those final scenes—when Miranda suddenly changes demeanor from warm and welcoming to terrifyingly cold and clinical in her punishment and William is reduced from an increasingly cocky interloper to a helpless, sobbing dupe—would have played.

At their best, they might have felt like the last act of Takashi Miike’s unforgettable shocker Audition (2000), which followed a similar narrative trajectory in that its effectiveness relied on making you think two people are entering into a genuine relationship when, in fact, one of those people is setting a trap that culminates in deliriously unsettling retributive violence. Perhaps the ending of Return to Sender would have packed that same punch or maybe not, but I’ll never know.

Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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