Return to Sender is a rape/revenge tale of sorts that wants viewers to suspect it’s something far more dramatic, empowering and edgy. Of course if simply wanting something was enough to make it true then I’d be playing doubles tennis with Melanie Lynskey, Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd right now instead of writing about this tripe. Sadly, I am not. Almost as sadly, this film achieves none of its intended goals and instead ends up as little more than a despicable, weak-kneed stab at merging drama and exploitation that manages neither.
Miranda (Rosamund Pike) is a young nurse determined to make the move into becoming a surgical assistant in the near future. It’s certainly more important to her than being in a relationship and almost as important as her love of baking, but after months of kindly nudging she allows a friend to set her up on a blind date. A man arrives at her house, and presuming he’s the guy she invites him in for a drink before realizing too late the mistake she’s made. William (Shiloh Fernandez) rapes and beats her before running off and leaving her battered body to be found by the actual blind date. He’s caught, convicted and sentenced, but Miranda ends up in a prison of her own.
She misses necessary milestones for her promotion to the surgery team, grows insanely short-tempered with those around her and develops hand tremors that make frosting a cake impossible. Stuck in place and unable to move forward, she begins writing letters to William in jail only to see them returned unopened. Persistence pays off though leading to a series of prison visits between Miranda and the man who assaulted her. Her smile grows bigger with each visit, her clothes grow skimpier and her eyes grow, well they really can’t grow any wider as Pike is already a master of the wide-eyed look, but she stretches them to the limit. Miranda shuts out her family (Nick Nolte) and friends (Camryn Manheim, Rumer Willis) and awaits William’s eventual release by focusing on her house and garden.
Because sometimes subtle symbolism needs repeating… she waits for a return visit from her rapist by tending her front garden.
Return to Sender is ludicrous and insulting from beginning to end, and the fault rests entirely with director Fouad Mikati and writers Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett. Forgiveness is daunting and impossible for some of us to conceive, but there’s a potential for sharp character study there. An actual relationship is even more unbelievable, but it happens and again offers grounds for an exploration of human behavior. Barring either of those paths, planning and executing revenge on an attacker takes the dramatic low ground, but nasty catharsis can still be entertaining when done right. (See Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 for an example of the latter.) Any of these could make for an engaging film. This is not an engaging film.
There’s only one scene shot with anything resembling energy and power, and it’s unsurprisingly the rape. Mikati captures the violence and fear with a sense of sweaty urgency and focuses on Miranda’s pained and terrified face as the sound of ball-slapping marks the time. It’s exactly as horrific as it should be, but no other moment in the film up to and including the ending gets the same kind of intense attention.
The script wants desperately for viewers to think one thing in the hopes we’ll be surprised by the final ten minutes, but even if the marketing hadn’t already spoiled that revelation the writing is so heavy-handed and obvious that it’s almost impossible to miss. (Cue the old “Operation” game TV commercials…) That wouldn’t be so bad if either the ending was worth the wait or if the drama – will forgiving her attacker ease her trauma? can they develop a real relationship? – was the least bit compelling, but neither case is true. The ending teases something far greater than we get and lacks even the smallest satisfaction – it literally declines to show viewers something of immense narrative importance – and at no point do we believe the character work that the film so desperately needs us to.
Various traits are attributed to Miranda in the hopes of fleshing her out or making her attack that much more traumatic, but like the film itself they’re hollow and pointless. She has a passion for baking – we even see her giddily stroking a double oven in the new home she wants to buy – so of course the rape occurs in her kitchen. She’s a fairly intense germophobe – something you’d think might preclude her wanting to work in a hospital – but while we’re made to repeatedly witness her issues with sharing pens or telephones nothing ever comes of it. Perhaps most odd, she’s never allowed to be even remotely likable. We feel for her tragedy, but that’s due more to our innate empathy for people who’ve endured hardships than for anything the character is or does. She’s casually indifferent towards friends – somewhat fair as one says she “needs a man” post-rape – and mean to strangers, and without spoiling the details let’s just say she makes Nietzsche proud on her path toward recovery. Pike does what she can with the character, but the script gives her no real room to breathe.
But hey, we get some laughs seeing Manheim as a nurse who’s eating like a slob in every one of her scenes, and by laughs I mean disappointment seeing a talented actress relegated to playing the stereotypical caricature of “fat friend.” Nolte fares slightly easier as he simply wanders on set periodically, rasps something in Pike’s direction and then shuffles back to the facility. Fernandez has the film’s most thankless role as the film wants us to see the possibility of William’s redemption without ever making an effort in that direction.
Return to Sender fails as a drama and as a thriller, and it only manages to be exploitative by lazy, ignorant default. It sets up something it clearly has no intention on following through with, and when it shifts gears in the obvious direction it short changes audiences yet again. Maybe skip this one and watch a double feature of Act of Vengeance and Gone Girl instead.
The Upside: It looks like a feature film; short running time
The Downside: Insulting and idiotic script; lacks emotion in its attempts at drama and thrills