Not long ago, Sarah Michelle Gellar was a take-no-prisoners icon, as TV's demon-destroying Buffy. Just a few years later, she's appearing in thrillers so underwhelming that they aren't even screened for critics in advance. And while she had little more than a glorified cameo in last month's "The Grudge 2," the failure of "The Return" will rest entirely on her waifish shoulders.
Gellar herself seems well aware of the futility of this project; she virtually sleepwalks through her role as Joanna Mills, a vulnerable young woman tormented by unsettling visions.
A sales rep for a trucking company, her work takes her to Texas, where she's assaulted by all the signs of a barely trying B-movie. You know what I mean: her radio goes crazy when she enters a supernatural danger zone; she sees someone else's face in the mirror; the score becomes a hyperactive blend of violins, wind chimes and a ghost that keeps whispering "sunshiiiiine" in her ear.
Convinced she's losing her mind, Joanna tries to find answers by revisiting places that feel familiar to her. Her father (Sam Shepard) suggests a dusty town she passed through as a child, where she meets a stranger (Peter O'Brien) who's clearly hiding some secrets.
And what about the violent co-worker (Adam Scott) stalking her, or the gas-station attendant (J.C. MacKenzie) who casually calls her "Sunshine" while ringing up her purchase?
Don't be fooled by the above, though, because here's what actually happens to Joanna while she's in Texas:
Nothing. And then … nothing.
Oh, it's not her fault: She does everything she can to put herself in danger. She wanders into abandoned barns, drives down isolated roads at night, stays in creepy motels with no other customers. But the movie, bizarrely enough, provides her with unlimited escape routes. She'll almost get caught by some hidden menace, and then suddenly she's in her car, driving away. She seems to be entering a dangerous biker bar, and then it turns out she didn't. A man breaks into her room, and she slips out immediately.
If all of this were building toward something — anything — it might create modest suspense. But since Adam Sussman's script is as lazy as Asif Kapadia's direction is disjointed, nothing ever makes sense, even after the anticlimatic explanation is revealed.
Not even Gellar can work up any interest in Joanna's fate. Perhaps she, like us, is wondering how an erstwhile vampire slayer could end up watching the blood slowly drain out of her career.