D: Fouad Mikati / 95m
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim, Alexi Wasser, Rumer Willis, Illeana Douglas
Miranda Wells (Pike) is a nurse aiming to transfer to another hospital and become a surgical nurse. She lives alone and has few friends beyond her colleagues at work. She also has obsessive-compulsive tendencies, preferring to use her own pens, and work and rest in a (mostly) clean environment. Unattached, she’s persuaded by a friend to go on a blind date. On the day in question she’s getting ready for her date when she realises someone is at her front door. Thinking it’s her date, she tells him he’s too early but allows him in. When she becomes uncomfortable with his being there, Miranda asks him to leave. Instead, he locks the front door and assaults her, eventually raping her in the kitchen.
The man, whose name is William Finn (Fernandez), is caught, tried and sent to prison. Miranda’s recovery is aided by her father, Mitchell (Nolte), but her ordeal has affected her to the point where her transfer is denied and she finds her right hand trembles uncontrollably without warning. She experiences outbursts of anger, and is unable to move from her home because no one will buy a house where a rape occurred. Some time later she decides to write a letter to Finn. The letter comes back to her marked ‘Return to Sender’, but Miranda continues to send Finn letters until on one returned letter he writes “You win”. Keeping all this from her father, Miranda travels to the prison where Finn is incarcerated.
Her visits increase until Finn is able to tell her that he is being released. He asks her if she would want to see him once he’s out; she says yes. When Finn arrives at her home she is in the middle of having some work done on the outside, work that Mitchell has been trying to help her with. Miranda gets Finn to do some of the work as recompense for what he did, but when her father finds out he’s been there, Miranda has to persuade him that it’s all part of her coming to terms with what happened and being able to move on. Mitchell is disgusted by her attitude, and stays away, leaving Miranda and Finn by themselves…
An odd mix of character study and thriller, Return to Sender is a colourless movie that tries to squander a very good performance from Pike, plays flatly throughout, and shies away from anything too controversial in its efforts to tell its story. It’s a dull movie as well, with Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett’s script lacking any real punch or tension, and it’s further undermined by Mikati’s weak direction.
With all this it’s a wonder that Pike that comes off as well as she does, elevating her performance above and beyond the production’s attempts to stifle her. It’s the main reason why the movie doesn’t work as well as it should, as from the beginning it almost strives to make Miranda unappealing and unsympathetic, so much so that when she is raped, the shock isn’t there for the viewer; it makes it all the harder to feel the appropriate sadness and horror for her. Even in the following scenes, where we see her battered and bruised in hospital, Miranda’s vacant stare is tellingly depicted by Pike but lacks the emotional heft that should come with it. Thanks to Mikati’s matter-of-fact approach to the scenes, Pike is left adrift, emoting in a way that should have audiences hoping Finn gets his just desserts – and then some – but which in truth does nothing of the sort. Instead, Finn disappears from the movie while Miranda spends her time aimlessly watching TV or trying to control her hand tremors.
As this section takes some time to work itself through, Miranda’s sudden decision to write to Finn seems like a turn out of left field, a way of propelling the plot forward but without any appreciable conviction. It does lead to some misdirection (or confusion, depending on your point of view), as Miranda and Finn begin to bond in prison, and the possibility of her attempting to extract some kind of revenge becomes apparent. And yet, it’s also possible that some form of emotional, even physical relationship may develop between them, and it’s all thanks to Pike’s glacial features and the way in which she makes Miranda a blank slate to look at. Again, without Pike’s performance, the movie – and this part of it – wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as it is, and this despite any attempt to support the actress and the presentation of her character.
Fernandez fares even worse, with the reasons for Finn’s actions glossed over in a couple of mumbled sentences. As a character, Finn is too “wet” for the actor to have any chance of doing anything worthwhile with him, and Fernandez looks uncomfortable in most of his scenes, as if he’s realised early on that nothing he does will make Finn hated or pitied, or more than just a necessary plot device. Nolte coasts along, putting in the minimum effort required, and there’s an awkward scene where he’s required to fall over a porch swing and be helped up by Pike; the redundancy of the moment is shocking.
With so little effort made to sell the plot and with Pike stranded as if she’s been imported from another thriller entirely, the movie fails in other areas as well, not least in its look, which is like that of a slightly more expensive TV movie. As mentioned above, it leaves the movie feeling colourless, and there’s little going on in most scenes that grabs the attention (even the rape scene is shot in such a way that you become too aware of the choreography and the camera positions). And the movie ends so abruptly, the average viewer will be thinking, “Really? That’s it?” With all this to detract from potential enjoyment, it’ll be a fortunate viewer who takes anything more from this movie than Pike’s sterling performance.
Rating: 4/10 – muddled, poorly assembled, and lacking in focus, Return to Sender is a misfire that seems to have achieved such a status deliberately; Pike – if you haven’t guessed by now – is the only reason for watching, but good as she is, it’s a recommendation that should only be taken up after a lot of consideration and forethought.