Return to Sender movie review: yes, return to sender

Return to Sender red light

For almost the entire running time of this movie, we have no idea what it is about. What is it trying to say? What sort of story is it trying to tell?
I’m “biast” (pro): love Rosamund Pike

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

In my head I’m calling this film What Is This I Can’t Even: The Movie. It works at least as well as the blandly generic and not even really apropos Return to Sender, which describes a tiny section of the second act that then resolves itself and has no further bearing on the story. In fact, the bearing it does have on the story hardly makes any sense at all, not on the level of plot, character, or theme. Not that the plot, characters, or putative themes make any sense on a whole-movie level, either.

What is this? I can’t even.

Miranda (Rosamund Pike: Gone Girl, Hector and the Search for Happiness) is a nurse. She’s not very nice to her coworkers or supposed friends, except when she’s making them master-pastry-chef-type cakes for their birthdays. “It’s just something I do,” she announces with faux modesty, when she really means, “You probably won’t even appreciate it as you shove it in your gob, you disgusting slob.” Credit, I guess, to Pike for making us understand that that is the subtext of her dialogue at that moment — though poor Camryn Manheim (Jewtopia, An Unfinished Life ) for having to play that coworker and “friend” as a person whose defining characteristic is that she is a fat woman who is constantly eating. (I mean, constantly, in every scene she’s in, for no reason at all, even when it’s not a birthday party. Even when she’s just answering the phone at the nurses’ station, while Miranda sneers at her.)

But even Pike, who is a fantastic actor, cannot make us understand why this cold, nasty bitch — there really is no other way to describe Miranda, and that’s being generous — behaves as she does after she is the victim of a terrible home-invasion attack. She lets William (Shiloh Fernandez: Evil Dead, The East) in because she thinks he is the blind date she is awaiting, and then he rapes her violently. Because of course he does. Creepy rapists skulking around outside ladies’ houses in broad daylight! Really, movie? It’s like a 1980s made-for-cable cautionary tale about women living alone and agreeing to blind dates. Anyway, it’s fine that Miranda is a disagreeable person, as potentially intriguing characters go, but that doesn’t explain, on its own, what happens next.

Well, actually, what happens next, for a long time, is almost nothing of any great import, at least as far as the script — by Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett — can be bothered to share with us. Miranda writes letters to William in prison, which is weird and awkward and massively WTFish, particularly because we have no idea what the contents of her letters consists of. He keeps rejecting those letters — hence the movie’s title — until suddenly he doesn’t. Why? Who knows. What is Miranda up to? What is going through William’s head? Your guess at this point is as good as mine: you now have as much information as anyone who has seen the film has about the motivations of either character. We might guess that Miranda is engaging in some sort of self-help therapy to reclaim her life and her headspace after such an awful violation, but we don’t know that. We might guess that Miranda is plotting some horrific revenge on her attacker that begins with befriending him, but we don’t know that either. (This movie is so divorced from emotional reality that it doesn’t even seem to consider that William might wonder why a stranger he violently raped is being so nice to him. Even a sociopath — which he may or may not be, who knows! — would be suspicious.)

For almost the entire running time of this movie, we have no idea what it is about. What is it trying to say? What sort of story is it trying to tell? The inept direction by Fouad Mikati — whose only previous credit is dumb action comedy Operation: Endgame — ensures that almost ever scene is anticlimactic, sometimes feeling cutoff midscene, leaving you wondering just what the hell was supposedly to have been accomplished dramatically therein. Mikati mistakes narrative coyness for suspense… and then ultimately he wants to be both coy and salacious at the same time. Which fails, spectacularly, to be satisfying either as emotional catharsis or as horrific revenge. The only thing I felt as I watched this was an overwhelming sense of ickiness. It’s bad enough that so much of pop culture seems to think that only thing that makes a woman interesting or worth telling a story about is if she is raped… and then this movie doesn’t even make Miranda interesting or worth telling a story about.

I don’t blame the cast — which also includes Nick Nolte (Noah, Gangster Squad) as Miranda’s dad — for this, but Return to Sender is so incompetent even on a basic storytelling level that it’s a wonder it’s even getting released at all. In fact, I suspect it would have stayed sealed away in a vault somewhere if not for some vague similarities between Miranda and Pike’s Gone Girl character. The people who sunk money into this movie are hoping you will be fooled into thinking you will be getting more of the same here. Do not believe it.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Return to Sender for its representation of girls and women.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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