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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Return (2013)

Director: Travis Mills
Star: Michael Hanelin, Stacie Stocker, Bailey Stocker and Tony Sarnicki
The fifth of Running Wild's contemporary adaptations of public domain short stories is one of the oddest of them all, because of what it attempts, what it ignores, what it does and what it has no interest at all in doing. The source is an 1897 story by Joseph Conrad, which at over 20,000 words is notably longer than the first four stories Travis Mills adapted put together, but very little happens in it, at least that could be easily translated to the screen. Physically it unfolds within a single room in a single house, mostly in the form of a conversation between a couple who had been married for five years; she left a note explaining that she's leaving him, but then promptly returned while he was still absorbing the news, apparently not willing or able to go through with her plans for reasons that are never explained. However, the real story unfolds in Alvan Hervey's head, as he tries to wrap his head around it. 'He stood alone, naked and afraid, like the first man on the first day of evil,' wrote Conrad, and the story is his response to that.

Given that what drives the story isn't the fact that Hervey's wife left him but that she returned, it's a trip to realise that Mills removed the return entirely from this adaptation of The Return. Sure, Alvan Hervey is updated to become Martin Klinger, whose wife e-mails him at work to tell him that she's leaving, but the script departs from the source story at that point, except for its concentration on Klinger's wild struggles to come to terms with what's just happened. While we soon see a lot of Chelsea Klinger, not to mention their daughter, a character who doesn't exist in the story, we never once see either of them for real, as each scene is conjured up inside Martin's mind as he searches for some sort of understanding of what their relationship really was. In ignoring almost the entire story and removing the event of its title, Mills ambitiously concentrates on what Conrad was aiming for, namely an exploration of emotion within the descriptive language for which he was known and which is incredibly difficult to adapt to film.

Running less than seven rushed minutes, it makes a pretty decent attempt to adapt the claustrophobic and hallucinatory tone of much of Conrad's fiction into visuals. One of my favourite lines from Conrad is one from The Secret Agent where he described a street as 'a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off.' It's a magnificently concise setting that reeks of oppression, but it would take a budget far more substantial than anything Running Wild can bring to bear to show that as well on screen. This sort of thing is very apparent in The Return, which means that, for instance, Mills is tasked with visualising a sentence like, 'He walked at her, raging, as if blind; during these three quick strides he lost touch of the material world and was whirled interminably through a kind of empty universe made up of nothing but fury and anguish, till he came suddenly upon her face—very close to his.' Such a task would stretch the likes of a master, but Mills does give it an interesting go.
He does it through a combination of close-up shots, fast paced editing and hand held camerawork, which combine into a strong sense of urgency. The first thing we see is Michael Hanelin's face, as he wills a mail to show up in his inbox, albeit not the one he gets. If that's a close-up, the next shots are closer, because they only depict halves of faces, more like chads than the zooms we see in Carl Theodor Dreyer. When we see the Dear John mail from Chelsea, we only see fractions of it, enough to catch phrases like 'I'm going', 'I'm leaving' or 'I'm sorry' without the need to highlight them. Then Martin rushes home, in rapid fire cuts that do far more than crop his journey, they suggest that his mindset precludes him from experiencing it himself. The handheld camera takes over, staying as close as it can as he rages around, emphasising his bewilderment. To highlight how quickly these emotions are running wild (pun clearly intended) inside his head, a whole host of shots begin out of focus and rush quickly into it, only to cut to another.

It's ironic that I most want to praise Rolo Tomassi here, the Running Wild editor, given that it's a clearly a pseudonym borrowed from LA Confidential, where it was used to subvert a screen adaptation by cropping out hundreds of pages of source material and allowing it all to move in a completely unfaithful direction. I have no idea who handles the role of Tomassi at Running Wild, or whether it's even the same person from one film to another, but whoever it was here did a great job. If it's Mills himself, he deserves extra praise for his work with the camera. The various experiments of this sort that pepper the 52 Films in 52 Weeks project which, after all, was an experiment to begin with, aren't always successful but they were a strong point in this entry. That's a good thing, because there's little here except the experimentation. Certainly, anyone wanting to see the source story on screen is going to be disappointed, even if they factor in the contemporary setting. You can't really have The Return without the return, after all, and it needs an end.

The key actors tasked with bringing this one to life are used to Mills's experimentations. Michael Hanelin, the Running Wild casting director, is the actor given the opportunity to bring life to Martin Klinger. In this adaptation, he's less an updated version of Alvan Harvey, given that he has neither his name nor any of his dialogue, and more of a similarly fraught bundle of emotions with a new name. Hanelin is powerful in what must have felt somewhat like a test scene performed for an acting class. Playing Chelsea is Stacie Stocker, who never disappoints, even with only a week to prepare, as she substituted here for an actress who baulked at the last minute from performing a (completely safe for work) scene with a vibrator; even bringing her real daughter, Bailey, to play her screen daughter. Surely less of a disaster than the rain that saw the last film become silent, Mills masochistically enjoyed the challenge. 'It's almost becoming fun,' he said in the accompanying webisode, 'to solve these problems.' And that's why 52 Films in 52 Weeks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good review. Glad you liked the use of close-ups.

Though, I think you missed the "return". It may not be the same as the one in Conrad's story. But Stacie does return in the film. She leaves and she comes back, even if just in his mind.

-TM