Return to Sender (2015)

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Surgery practice!
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US / 95 minutes / color / Voltage, Boo, WOC, HW Dir: Fouad Mikati Pr: Candice Abela-Mikati, Holly Wiersma Scr: Patricia Beauchamp, Joe Gossett Cine: Russell Carpenter Cast: Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Camryn Manheim, Illeana Douglas, Nick Nolte, Alexi Wasser, Rumer Willis, Stephen Louis Grush, Donna Duplantier, Ian Barford, Billy Slaughter, Scout Taylor-Compton, Jeff Pope, Ryan Phillippe, Liann Pattison.

Sweet hospital nurse Miranda Wells (Pike), though rather cold, is always willing to help—and always level-headed in a crisis. To be sure, she’s a tad over-fastidious and obsessive, a quality she puts to good use in her hobby of baking and decorating intricately crafted cakes but that also manifests itself through her panicky antagonism to using any pens save those of a particular brand (which she orders by the boxful), through her need to clean off public phones before touching them . . . and through her reluctance to meet men with a view to dating.

Rosamund Pike as Nurse Miranda Wells.

Her colleagues and friends Nancy (Manheim), Darlene (Willis) and April (Wasser) are determined to do something to “cure” Miranda of this last idiosyncracy, and after months of trying Darlene has managed to get her to agree to a blind date with a man called Kevin (Slaughter).

The appointed day comes, and Kevin apparently arrives hours early. Miranda rather reluctantly welcomes him into her house while she finishes dressing and primping.

Bad mistake.

The man who has called on her isn’t Kevin at all but William Finn (Fernandez), a restaurant employee with whom she rubbed shoulders the other night while she was saving the life of a choking diner. William seizes her, beats her, and brutally rapes her on her kitchen table.

Billy Slaughter as the real Kevin.

Even though she barely saw him at the restaurant, Miranda remembers who he is and he’s soon arrested, tried and imprisoned.

Miranda (Rosamund Pike), after the attack.

Miranda has been attempting for some while to sell her home, but now no one wants to buy the house where someone was brutally raped. She herself is not too keen to carry on living in it, for the same reason, but seems stuck with it. “Why don’t you plant rose bushes?” suggests her friendly realtor Judy (Douglas)—in other words, if you can’t move to a new house why not turn your old one into somewhere new?

Illiana Douglas as Miranda’s realtor, Judy.

And so, with the help of beloved elderly dad Mitchell (Nolte), who has spent his life running a hardware store, Miranda sets about sprucing the place up.

She’s also been writing to William in prison. Her first few dozen letters come back with “Return to Sender” stamped on them, but finally she receives a cryptic message from him: “YOU WIN.”

Their written correspondence swiftly develops such that soon she’s visiting him regularly in prison. He’s reluctant to speak to her at first, full of shame and remorse as he is, yet with her encouragement slowly blossoms until she can see him as the sensitive, vulnerable guy he really is, ashamed of the one great mistake he made . . .

Shiloh Fernandez as Miranda’s rapist, William Finn.

Which we know to be nothing but an act: William’s a power-seeking sadist who enjoys little more than brutalizing, sexually and otherwise, his cellmate Randy (Grush). I assume it’s no coincidence on the part of the screenwriter that we have two characters called Miranda and Randy whom William treats with similar callousness.

Stephen Louis Grush as William’s cellmate, Randy.

When the news comes through of William’s parole, Miranda invites him to come help her in the ongoing fixing-up of her house. (The chronology seems odd here. How long does it take to fix up a house? Or did the rapist get an unconscionably short sentence, of the order of months?) Before leaving prison William bids a farewell to Randy that’s full of meaning: “Somehow, I know you won’t forget me. Most people don’t.”

Miranda’s dad, Mitchell, can’t believe she’s being so stupid, but Miranda is determined: “If I hate him forever that hurts no one but me.”

Nick Nolte as Mitchell Wells.

She said the same about her dad’s elderly dog Benny, who seemed to loathe her. Eventually, though, she was able to befriend the critter to the point that he appeared to prefer her company to Dad’s. She was as devastated as Dad was when the dog died.

All along, while William has been manipulating Miranda during their prison conversations, we have, like Mitchell, been wondering how she could be so stupid as not to realize what he’s up to—because we have plenty of evidence she’s far from a stupid person. Unless, of course, it’s not she who’s the one being manipulated . . . Could it be that she’s playing the long game, waiting patiently for her revenge?

And, sure enough:

William: “Did you make me sick?”
Miranda: “No. The antifreeze made you sick. I just provided it to you.”

Rosamund Pike as Miranda — fully in control at last.

I may seem to have given away the Return to Sender’s surprise denouement, and I suppose that in small part I have—except that, when you’re watching the movie, the way that aspect turns out really isn’t much of a surprise. The true twist of the movie is the revelation of the person Miranda actually is, which is a far cry from the one we’ve assumed her to be.

There are comparisons to be made between the characters of Miranda Wells in this movie and Zoe Hughes, whom Pike plays in Devil You Know (2013), which I discussed here on Noirish last week. Both are seeming wide-eyed innocents who prove to be in reality merely wide-eyed. It is obviously a role that Pike is especially well suited to: we could expand the comparison to include also Amy Elliott Dunne in Gone Girl (2014), whom everyone believes rather than husband Nick (Ben Affleck) simply because it’s hard to believe someone who looks like Amy could be as ruthless and devious as she is.

Camryn Manheim as Miranda’s fellow-nurse Nancy.

Return to Sender is an efficient little nailbiter, a psychological thriller of the type that, indeed, Gone Girl had the previous year both epitomized and revived as a hugely popular subgenre—although one could argue that, like film noir itself, the “domestic” psychological thriller never really went away. Both movies also exemplify the way that the borderlines are so hazy between the modern psychological thriller and the modern neonoir, both of which take classical noirish tropes and weave them into plots that are often infernally complicated (literally so in the case of The USUAL SUSPECTS, 1995). And, returning to our comparison of Return to Sender with Devil You Know, it’s pretty plain that Pike is playing two versions of the classic femme fatale in her two roles: both of the women are “dangerous to know,” one through her shallowness and weakness of will, the other through her iron determination.

Watching this movie I was struck yet again by how photogenic Pike is. There may certainly be lovelier actresses and there may even be some who’re more talented, but Pike’s face has an extraordinary ability to catch the notice of the camera, to seem to frame itself to best advantage even if not at its prettiest, to force us to attend and to care.

Alongside Pike, Shiloh Fernandez delivers an excellent performance too as the shifty, shiftless conman and exploiter who’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is. I’m not sure about the final morality of this movie—indeed, it has about the same moral standing as the outcome of The LAST SEDUCTION (1994)—but, if William’s fate had to be visited upon anyone, it’s as well that it should have been upon William.

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