At some point in “Return to Sender,” a character calls another, “Stupid and predictable.” I could have easily repeated that sentiment as my review for this uninspired thriller and called it a day. What we have here is a misguided attempt at creating an intelligent and thought-provoking thriller about a controversial subject that’s far from intelligent and insightful, and as far away from thrilling as you can possibly get.
The incredibly simplistic story opens with Miranda (Rosamund Pike), an ambitious nurse about to be promoted to the prestigious surgery department of her hospital (a fact that’s pounded into the audience’s skulls every couple of minutes in order to pay off in clunky fashion during the climax), finally agreeing to go on a blind date set up by one of her colleagues. Unfortunately for Miranda, the man she thought to be her date turns out to be a stranger who brutally rapes and beats her within an inch of her life. The rapist, later identified as a creepy restaurant employee named William (Shiloh Fernandez), is caught and sent to prison, which does very little to cure Miranda’s crippling PTSD.
The film’s many issues concerning logic and narrative execution present themselves from the very first scenes. Director Fouad Mikati, who previously helmed a woefully unfunny spy comedy called “Operation: Endgame,” directs Pike and Fernandez during the scene where their characters meet for the first time as if they already know each other, as if there’s already an uncomfortable history there.
Even though the scene is supposed to represent the beginning of a blind date, Pike acts as if William is her abusive ex-boyfriend or another nefarious presence from her past. The fact that screenwriters Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett hint that Miranda refusing to go on dates for so long is due to a painful romantic history further complicates the coherence of this scene. Mikati’s attempt to create tension before the admittedly unsettling rape scene backfires, because he infuses the performances instead of the film’s visual language with said tension, when the characters at that point in the story don’t call for any.
Miranda’s PTSD is represented with Lifetime Channel-levels of one-dimensionality, complete with close-up shots of shaking hands and over-the-top mood swings. An unintentionally comical scene where Miranda flips out at an emo dry cleaning attendant should be studied as an example of how an attempt to create artful melodrama can go disastrously wrong. Afraid of her PTSD jeopardizing her personal life and her career, Miranda comes up with a highly unorthodox solution: she writes to William with hopes of visiting him in prison so she can face her fears head on.
Now, from this point on, Miranda’s ulterior motive for meeting William becomes painfully obvious. I should clarify that Miranda’s motive is obvious for everyone except for the screenwriters and the director, who misguidedly entertain the highly unlikely possibility that their lumbering attempt at a shocking climax will prove to be a remotely unpredictable plot twist for the audience. The characters seem to be equally as clueless, as William finally accepts Miranda’s request to meet him and doesn’t find it suspicious that the woman he once brutally raped suddenly wants to become his new BFF.
As “Return to Sender” drags towards a finale filled with empty shock value, we get an excruciatingly slow-paced second act composed entirely of filler subplots that awkwardly attempt to answer to some of the characters’ illogical behavior. The most ill-conceived of these subplots involves Miranda training her father’s out of control mutt. Nick Nolte plays Miranda’s father, and his trademark gravelly mumbling made me wish the online screener came with English for the Hard of Deciphering Nolte subtitles.
The screenplay attempts to draw a thematic connection between Miranda’s relationship with William and the dog, as she struggles to make peace with her fears and find positivity within them. This attempt fails disastrously for a very simple reason that there’s quite a bit of emotional difference between dealing with a man who raped and beat you and a scruffy dog who occasionally barks at you.
If we were to believe that William’s truly sorry for what he did, and that he is indeed on the road to rehabilitation, it would have put the already groan-inducing climax at least into a bit of a grey area. However, Mikati and the screenwriters refuse to let any subtlety enter their film as they make sure that the audience gets it in their heads that William is one of those movie psychopaths who act suspiciously friendly until the screenplay requires him to remind us that he’s still the bad guy.
“Return to Sender” could have been salvaged if it went with either one of the completely different narrative styles it attempts to meld together. The idea of a levelheaded drama about a rape victim who tries to get over her PTSD by meeting her attacker in prison is an intriguing one. Or, go to the complete opposite end of the narrative spectrum and create a schlocky exploitation picture, a-la the loathed or celebrated (depending on who you talk to) revenge fantasy classic “I Spit on Your Grave”. Unfortunately, in this bland and lifeless, wishy-washy state, “Return to Sender” proves to be nothing but dead air, an entirely too predictable, slow-paced, and misguided genre effort. [D-]