The Russian export The Return begins on an ominous note and stays there for 105 absorbing, frustrating minutes. A group of swimsuited boys, their flesh deathly pale against a sunless sky, prod each other into performing high dives from a man-made tower into the cold waters below. There's a smidgen of distance between those waters and some nasty-looking concrete, and we instinctually fear the worst. So does Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), the youngest and smallest of the boys, whose severe acrophobia prevents him from making a move. When his mother (Natalia Vdovina) finally comes for him, he's become completely short-circuited: too frightened to jump, but too humiliated to climb back down.
That's the metaphor for childhood that director Andrey Zvyagintsev explores throughout his movie, a paranoid, precarious psychological drama. Still taking heat from his peers for his diving-dare washout, Ivan comes home one day to find that, for the first time in memory, he has two parents. His long-lost father (Konstantin Lavronenko), who left the family under unspecified circumstances, has returned to dominate the household with his authoritarian attitudes and stubbornly withheld backstory. (Lavronenko, who looks like a more rugged Campbell Scott, makes the part seethe with sinister impenetrability.) At their father's insistence, Ivan and his older brother, Andrey (the late Vladimir Garin), are promptly spirited off on a car trip that has all the earmarks of a male-bonding exercise. The three go fishing and camping, and even end up sailing to a far-off island. But the very urgency of the excursion and the sense that Dad's agenda is something far more selfish than making up for lost time keep Ivan wondering just what the old man is really about. If he is their old man in the first place, that is.
Most of those questions will remain unanswered until even after the end credits roll. Zvyagintsev is solely interested in what the world looks like from the boys' vantage point, using their special situation as an extreme illustration of the idea that, at one time or another, every kid views his pop as an intimidating cipher. That's valid up to a point, but couldn't the maddeningly uninformative climax also acknowledge our grown-up need for, you know, resolution? (Art-house zombies will have you believe that expecting such a payoff these days is a sign of naiveté. Don't fall for it.)
But if Zvyagintsev is resistant to the demands of narrative, at least he's a master at setting mood. The Return consists of one immaculately composed shot of desolation after another, depicting bleak landscapes rendered in unforgiving grays, steely blues and the occasional sickly green. Add a bunch of effectively brooding performances and a sparse soundtrack that borders on the eerie, and you have the perpetual impression that something simply awful is about to happen. It's a feeling that defines childhood, more often than most folks would prefer to remember.