Rosamund Pike deserves better than this queasy exploitation pic, which plays as a belated dry run for 'Gone Girl.'
One has to feel for Rosamund Pike: No actor deserves to have their Oscar-nominated breakout role tailed by the likes of “Return to Sender,” a queasy but strangely gutless exploitation pic that plays not unlike a tardy dry run for “Gone Girl.” As it is, the tight-lipped froideur that she brought to David Fincher’s adult blockbuster provides the only notes of curiosity or complexity in Fouad Mikati’s otherwise unsurprising rape-revenge thriller. As an uptight surgical nurse taking a roundabout way toward closure after surviving a brutal home invasion, Pike constructs a dark-hearted heroine who could potentially beat Amy Dunne at her own game — if armed with a less misogynistic script and a lick of human credibility. Without these, “Return to Sender” looks like nothing more threatening than VOD fodder for Stateside distrib Image Entertainment; paltry B.O. numbers show U.K. auds have already refused delivery.
For Pike, following her game appearances in negligible Britcoms “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and “What We Did on Our Holiday,” “Return to Sender” presumably reps the last skeleton to be drawn from her pre-“Gone Girl” closet before the British star can begin reaping the benefits of last year’s success. If nothing else, the film is a throwaway that consolidates the striking, slippery screen persona she established in Fincher’s film: As Miranda, a suburban Hitchcock blonde whose all-American bloom is tempered with a certain English cut-glass poise, her precise identity is appropriately elusive. Patricia Beauchamp and Joe Gossett’s screenplay, however, uncovers little psychological nuance beneath the glacial enigma: Miranda’s chic inscrutability is a short-lived cover for her fundamental improbability as a character.
A rigid Type A personality with severe mysophobia — one wonders how she bears working in a hospital — Miranda is introduced upfront as almost inhumanly immaculate. Oddly, the film characterizes this ambitious female professional principally through her domestic capabilities: Not a magazine is out of place in her modest Missouri home (Louisiana here fills in for the Midwest), while she fills her spare hours with cake decoration techniques that would make Martha Stewart’s eyes pop. (“It’s just something I do,” she purrs, upon presenting a colleague with a three-tiered birthday gateau more suitable for a royal wedding.) She seems less bothered by her unattached status than her friends do, but she agrees to be fixed up on a blind date anyway: When her scuzzy, plaid-clad suitor William (Shiloh Fernandez) turns up, practically leaking oil onto the doormat, it’s hard to imagine a less suitable match.
As it turns out, our reservations are founded. In the film’s one successful instance of misdirection, William is revealed as an impostor who proceeds to savagely rape Miranda in her kitchen. Though he’s arrested and imprisoned in short order, Miranda’s recovery isn’t so tidy. As she lashes out at everyone from her kindly father (a maximally raspy Nick Nolte, his lines frequently traveling no further than his beard) to a hapless dry-cleaning clerk, it would appear that recent stress has only unlocked pre-existing sociopathic tendencies. When she starts visiting William in prison, the film notionally teases auds with the distasteful possibility of fatal attraction, as she flirts through the protective glass in a succession of floaty day dresses. (Pike is dreamily costumed throughout by couture-conscious designers Kurt and Bart.)
Few will be fooled, however, which is probably for the best. The film’s depiction of rape trauma syndrome is already so superficial — Miranda can no longer frost cakes with a steady hand — that articulating the more perverse realms of human desire might be a reach too far. As B-movie instinct takes over, more expected power dynamics come into play, yet Mikati and his writers remain cavalier in their treatment of their conflicted protagonist, refusing engagement with her wounded psyche and defining her only in icy polarities of control and derangement. (The camera, meanwhile, leers along with her male oppressor at her calculated desirability.) Pike does her best to locate the character in the spaces between her most extreme outbursts and her most Stepfordian mannerisms, finding pockets of sympathy even where the writing does not, but can’t do much with dialogue as leadenly obvious as, “Hating him only hurts me.”
Failing to make sense of a raging psycho who also happens to be a thudding doofus, Fernandez is outsmarted by his co-star at every turn, while few demands are made of a bizarrely overqualified supporting cast. (Look for Ryan Phillippe — or the back of his head, to be precise — in a minute sub-cameo as a UPS deliverer.) At least Illeana Douglas brings an unhinged streak of eccentricity to her incidental role as Miranda’s real-estate agent, enthusing lasciviously over granite countertops and gleefully issuing the most baffling advice imaginable to a recent rape victim struggling to sell her crime-smeared property: “Why don’t you plant rose bushes?”
Faced with such unattractive material, Mikati effectively takes that advice to heart on the filmmaking front. The pic’s polished tech credentials belie its grimy origins, with d.p. Russell Carpenter (an awfully long way from “Titanic”) bathing the proceedings in a buttery summer glow, no matter the supposed time of year. The score, by distinctive composer Daniel Hart (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), toys with more brittle sonic textures before settling on standard-issue tones of dread — as if to compensate for the lack of tension elsewhere.